Window closing devices in automobiles have come a long way.

First there was the manual crank: Practical, but tiresome. Then came power windows, easier to operate, but painful if a child's fingers get in the way. So-called contact sensing has come along to solve this nagging problem. It senses when the window is pinching little fingers (or big ones) and automatically reverses its movement, preventing most painful accidents.

Now, Intier Automotive Inc. is taking window technology a step further with what it calls non-contact sensing, a technology that detects when something is in the path of a closing window and reverses direction — without touching the object.

Chris Marsh, director of technical systems for closure modules at Intier, says the system works by using sensors that are placed in strategic locations, such as weather stripping or the doorframe.

“As a field is being read or monitored by the electronics, any change in that field caused by an obstruction, such as an individual's arm or hand, would change that field and cause the electronics and the software algorithms to retract the closure,” says Marsh.

The technology is in the advanced research and development stage, and Intier says customers who've seen it are “very aggressively pursuing it or considering it in some of their technology plans.”

A variety of competitors are testing or evaluating non-contact sensing technology, but have yet to commit to production. Jan Kowal, president of Brose North America Inc., says although his company is evaluating sonic and infrared non-contact sensing systems, Brose annually supplies more than 20 million power window systems with contact-sensing retraction and it's “tough to beat economically.”

Intier says consumers who have tested non-contact retraction systems prefer them to contact-sensing window retraction.

Gordon Paton, chief engineer for Intier's power systems center of excellence, says the clinics have revealed that consumers show more “trust” for non-contact systems.

“If you show it, or demonstrate the (contact sensing) technology to them, they're very cautious, even if you tell them that there's a (contact-sensing) system in there that will protect their hand, they won't (place their hand in the window).

“We would also demonstrate the non-contact system. The consumers are saying, ‘Oh, I like that. That's clever. I feel safer knowing that's there.’”

Paton says similar technology can be found outside the automotive industry on objects as diverse as garage-door openers, elevators and faucets. Intier says the technology is not only applicable to windows, but also power sliding doors and liftgates.

“The consumer today is essentially expecting these powered features,” Marsh says.

One possible concern some consumers might have is safety. For instance, if someone comes up and inserts their hand in the field as part of a car-jacking. Paton says Intier can counter that issue by incorporating a feature to override the system.

Marsh and Paton see non-contact sensing as being standard and optional, depending on where it is applied in a vehicle.

“Obviously we'd prefer it to be standard,” says Paton. “But it can be developed in such a way that it can be either integrated as part of the main closure system or added as an option.”

Marsh adds it would likely start out in a luxury vehicle if applied to a side door, but in other circumstances — in vehicles with power liftgates for example — he sees it as more than just an option because it might have a higher degree of usage.

Marsh says non-contact sensing will add to the price of a vehicle as any new technology would, but it will be minimal. “Based on what we've seen from our consumers, and the fact you can see it work, we feel the innovation is worth the cost.”