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Rearview mirrors reflect a high-tech future

They automatically dim when a bright light shines on them, and they display the temperature outside. Next up, they will read e-mail to the driver and capture dictated responses, or summon help.

If you want to see the cutting edge of high tech in your car, you might look under the hood or at the navigation computer in the dash. But would you believe the rearview mirror has become an epicenter of innovation?

Thanks to Gentex Corp., a relatively small (1,450 employees) company in the sleepy resort town of Zeeland, Mich., that reflector stuck to your windshield may be packed with technology.

Now, Gentex wants to take the mirror into the future, making it the "portal" for the wireless, Internet and navigation stuff carmakers hope you will soon demand inside your vehicle.

The mirror of the future also could have a powerful light sensor that will turn on and off the headlights at dawn and dusk and adjust the air conditioning by sensing the amount of sunlight coming through the windows.

Another big idea of Gentex: Equip the mirror with an electronic eye that detects rain or fog before the human eye can see it. It could then prompt the car to turn on its wipers and headlights.

"Gentex is a company with leading-edge technology, and their quality level is exceptional," said Doug Perry, a worldwide purchasing manager for General Motors Corp. "We hold them as an example of what we want to see out of all of our suppliers."

Gentex's wired mirror also has investors agog. Gentex stock has risen 91 percent over the past two years, towering over the devastating declines Wall Street visited on most auto suppliers recently. In an industry plagued by slow growth, Gentex has racked up a 25 percent average annual sales increase over the past five years, to $262-million. Profits grew even faster.

The engine of its growth? Mirrors that dim automatically when bright headlights strike from behind.

Detroit had long sought auto-dimming mirrors, but the traditional solution, which involved sensors and motors to tilt the glass, never worked well. Gentex founder Fred Bauer came up with a better idea, combining light-sensing technology from the fire alarms that had been his company's only product with a chemical gel. When the mirror's sensor detects a bright light source, it releases electricity through the gel, an "electrochromic" material, that responds by darkening or lightening to give the driver an easier rear view.

For Detroit's automakers, it was love at first sight. The surging popularity of sport utility vehicles and other light trucks, with higher headlights that more readily glare into cars ahead, has made them a hot feature. Gentex has 85 percent of the $270-million market for self-dimming mirrors. Among others, Gentex's self-dimming mirrors are found in the latest models of GM's Oldsmobile Intrigue and the Toyota Camry Solara. Carmakers can pay more than $100 for the mirrors, then resell them to car buyers at about two-and-a-half times the wholesale price or include them as a standard feature.

For Gentex, the early response was a bit overwhelming. Gentex's new mirror was so advanced _ no one had made an electrochromic mirror before _ that when Bauer accepted GM's order in 1988 for 800 mirrors a day, it almost cost him his company. Bauer's engineers hadn't been able to mature and stabilize the manufacturing system and lacked the know-how to pump out the mirrors. It lost $10 a mirror, or $8,000 a day, just to keep GM happy.

"That summer of 1988, it was like going to war every morning," Bauer said.

But the manufacturing problems eventually were solved and Gentex's business took off. The company kept up the pace by adding more features to the mirrors, among them a compass and an outside-temperature gauge.

Gentex isn't without competition. Donnelly Corp. of Holland, Mich., among others, sells auto-dimming mirrors with similar features. But analysts say Gentex's high-tech approach gives it the edge. Both make similar mirrors, but "Gentex is much farther along in technology than Donnelly," said Peter Boardman, a UBS Warburg analyst in New York.

Gentex is especially proud of a high-tech answer to a low-tech problem it came up with in 1998. Always seeking convenience features, automakers wanted to mount little map lights in the bottom of the mirror. But regular bulbs were too big and too hot, threatening to roast the technology in Gentex's mirrors. Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which are small and cool, didn't offer the right colors for reading. So Gentex turned to John Roberts, an engineer and a onetime Marine Corps helicopter pilot. He came up with a patented way to blend existing blue and amber LEDs to create white light bright enough to illuminate maps.

Gentex's latest push is to make the mirror the portal for in-car communications. New Gentex models include a button to summon emergency assistance as well as a microphone to operate cell phones and other voice-controlled features. Next, Gentex and carmakers would like to tackle e-mail access. By using voice-recognition software and a cellular connection, Gentex says the driver could retrieve e-mail messages and have the computer read them. The driver would compose messages by speaking into the mirror's microphone.

GM has turned to Gentex to transform the mirrors into consoles for its OnStar communications service, which it plans to put in 1-million cars by the end of the year. And Ford Motor Co. also may buy similar Gentex mirrors for its Wingcast in-car communications service, which Ford says will be on 4-million vehicles by 2003 and on every vehicle Ford sells by 2004.

The mirror is a hot property because, unlike other parts of the car, adding features to it doesn't usually require costly and time-consuming redesigns of other parts.

Inside his shiny, sprawling industrial campus in Zeeland, Bauer sits with a big grin on his face, memories of that brush with failure a decade ago distant. "Soon we will be able to operate the global positioning system through our voice-recognition system in the mirror, control some of the functions of the car, surf the Net, or do e-mail by voice," he said. "Who knew mirrors could go so high-tech?"