Auburn firm makes technology to protect police officers from ambush

Police officers out on patrol are constantly multi-tasking in their parked cars – talking on the radio, entering data into on-board computer systems or keeping their eyes locked straight ahead for imminent danger.


It’s all part of the job, and a time when they’re most vulnerable to ambush from behind.

Now they’ll have an extra layer of protection in cars equipped with a new product from InterMotive Inc., an Auburn company that specializes in vehicle control systems. If it senses someone approaching the car from behind, the Surveillance Mode system beeps, locks all doors, raises the driver’s window and flashes back-up lights.

The potentially life-saving device is one of dozens made by InterMotive, which has carved out a niche in the growing automotive technology sector.

InterMotive is one of those classic stories of a California tech company, evolving from a garage operation 17 years ago to its current 15,000-square-foot facility adjacent to Auburn Municipal Airport. The company designs and manufactures electronic control systems that can be installed in work trucks, commercial/school transit vehicles, paratransit vehicles, emergency response vehicles and recreational/everyday transporters.

Many devices can be held in one hand. Most communicate with a vehicle chassis via a specialized internal communications network. They can be plugged in quickly, with little or no disruption of a vehicle’s factory wiring. Depending on the need, InterMotive systems can control vehicle speeds (in forward and reverse), enhance towing power, disable a vehicle under certain conditions, control interior temperatures, manage idle time, initiate audio/visual warnings and store vehicle operations data.

The company started out doing accident investigations and broad-based consulting work but later narrowed its focus. Today, it’s a player in North America’s vehicle interlock systems industry.

“I’m familiar with them, and really, I don’t know of any other independent company doing everything that they’re doing,” said Chuck Ellis, an Atlanta-based security expert. “A lot of automakers are developing security systems or contracting out a specific task or component to subcontractors, and I know DUI interlock systems have been making some waves.

“But (InterMotive) seems to have a very broad range of on-board systems that do a lot of different things.”

Family-owned InterMotive won’t release data on revenues or profits, but company said product sales and development have steadily increased, prompting more hires, including a new engineer. President Greg Schafer expects continued growth, and he said the company is continually looking to develop new systems.

“Seventeen years ago, we were jacks of all trades and master of none,” Schafer said. “That led to a lack of focus. Twelve years ago, we started to focus on transit and paratransit … So, it sure wasn’t by design in the beginning. That’s just where the market took us.”

The company’s timing was fortunate. It was forming in the 1990s, when automakers were increasingly turning to computerized, in-car data systems and sophisticated electronic systems to manage everything from braking to rearview cameras. Builders of police and emergency vehicles were likewise looking for high-tech systems.

InterMotive’s recently introduced Surveillance Mode system, developed in cooperation with Ford Motor Co., made national headlines for the Auburn firm.

“It does give the officer a few extra seconds of warning, and that could make the difference between life and death, depending on the situation,” said Marc Ellison, InterMotive’s vice president of operations. “You hope it never comes to that, but the feeling is that if it saves even one life, it’s more than worth it.”

Surveillance Mode was developed at the urging of Randy Freiburger, a Ford engineer who conceived of the idea after an unnerving ride-along experience with a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy.

At first, however, Schafer was not inclined to pursue it.

“I initially declined,” Schafer said. “I didn’t want to take on more than we could chew and wasn’t sure I wanted to get that deep into the police market.”

But Freiburger was persistent, and Schafer and Ellison had a soft spot: both previously had worked for Ford.

Now, Surveillance Mode is a potential bonanza for InterMotive and the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker, which manufactures specially made “Interceptor” cars and sport-utility vehicles for police departments. Surveillance Mode goes for about $250 as a stand-alone device, but it’s cheaper when packaged with other electronic options.

Schafer, speaking by phone from a police vehicle show in Charlotte, N.C., where Surveillance Mode was named the most innovative device on display, said Ford has about 42 percent of the current police vehicle market and expects to up that to 45 percent by the end of the year, translating to thousands of police vehicles.

“It’s somewhere in the 20,000-unit vicinity,” Schafer said. “We’re hopeful. Looking at the indicators right now, this should work out.”

Ellison noted that, because of the past ties with Ford, InterMotive continues to do a lot of business with the automaker and Ford-made vehicles. However, he added that the company also offers products for General Motors, Chrysler, Freightliner, Nissan, and International vehicles.

He said InterMotive has a six-month exclusivity contract with Ford for Surveillance Mode, but the device ultimately might be offered by other vehicle manufacturers, and perhaps someday be installed in mainstream passenger cars.

Police security devices are an exotic aspect of InterMotive’s business, but Ellison said the paratransit market remains the firm’s bread and butter.

InterMotive makes numerous systems for paratransit buses, vans and other vehicles, including speed limiters, interior temperature controls, door-ajar warning systems, engine-disablers (when an emergency exit door is closed/unlocked), automatic wheelchair lifts and back-up-assist systems.

‘‘It’s pretty much a certainty that just about every paratransit vehicle you see has something on it made by us,’’ Ellison said.

InterMotive’s Auburn facility is a mix of traditional offices, storage space and surprisingly quiet work areas where employers test electronic boards, prepare shipments and assemble devices. Myriad components are carefully numbered and labeled. The place seems to have hundreds of miles of wires. In the center of the production area, a $100,000 machine made by Artos Engineering Co. of Wisconsin cuts and crimps wires, saving hours of painstaking wire work that was previously done by hand.

While its products are used internationally, InterMotive takes pride in its California roots.

Twenty-seven of its 30 employees are in Auburn – three others work in the Midwest and Northeast – and the company concentrates its recruiting efforts in California, despite the U.S. auto industry’s significant presence in and around Detroit and Midwest hotbeds of engineering education, such as Purdue University in Indiana and the University of Michigan, where Schafer earned his master’s degree in engineering.

InterMotive Corporate Executive Officer Linda Schafer, co-owner of the company with husband Greg, explained that the company’s California focus dates back to the couple’s California upbringing and the days when they both attended Sierra College in Rocklin. Greg Schafer went on to receive his undergraduate degree in engineering from California State University, Sacramento, and Linda Schafer received her marketing degree from the University of the Pacific.

‘‘With both of us being California natives and having so strong a background in California, it’s very important for us to be here and bring in (employees) who are also (Californians). It’s one of the ways we feel that we can give back,’’ Linda Schafer said.

‘‘We believe in hiring locally and buying locally whenever we can,’’ added Greg Schafer.

Source: Sacramento Bee

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