Five lessons drive-by-wire systems can teach shops on new technology

March 1, 2018
What happened with the technology that proved its worth in other industries and once seemed destined to quickly move into the automotive world? Pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of coffee. The answer to that question is long and involved.

During the summer of 2005, ABRN published an article on the status of drive-by-wire systems (see "Steering status," June 2005) and the “hurry up and wait” stance the repair industry was having to take with this technology. Talk on these supposedly emerging systems had gone on for years. The automotive press was rife with stories and speculation on drive-by-wire vehicles, and yet the technology seemed elusive. Shops prepared the best they could, braced for an influx of game-changing tech, and still nothing happened.    

More than a decade later, little seems to have changed. With the exception of some throttle-, shift- and park-by-wire setups, steering systems being discussed/developed have rarely made a presence outside an OEM engineering department or concept vehicle (for example the GM EN-V). Braking, particularly park-by-wire systems, have fared better and become part of mass-produced vehicles, but their presence pales in comparison to traditional braking. 

(Photo courtesy of GM Media) GM’s EN-V (Electric Networked-Vehicle) is one of many drive-by-wire concepts automakers have created as they continue to look for ways to bring by-wire technology into the mainstream.

What happened with the technology that proved its worth in other industries (most notably aviation and heavy-duty equipment) and once seemed destined to quickly move into the automotive world?  

Pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of coffee. The answer to that question is long and involved. It also provides valuable insight how some technologies find a way into an ever-changing market while others sit on the sidelines a bit longer—sometimes much longer. Understanding how industry forces determine which technologies shops see is the one of the keys to preparing for what new repairs your shop must handle. The continuing journey of by-wire technology, in particular steer-by-wire, offers important lessons on how repairers can do just that.    

Lesson #1: Great expectations don’t always translate into great results

The incentives driving the implementation of by-wire technology have been the same ones pushing most automotive developments: improved efficiency and cost reduction. The traditional hydraulic systems used for braking and steering use heavy hydraulic units that drag down mileage. Because hydraulics incorporate multiple movable parts, they also require significant owner investments in maintenance and service.  

Drive-by-wire systems, in contrast, utilize electrical units that weigh far less, incorporate fewer moving parts and integrate software upgrades that can be programmed to provide more efficient, controlled operation. Making them even more attractive, they provide ideal baseline components for alternative fuel vehicles where they can have an even greater impact on fuel efficiency and attract a customer base eager to get its hands on the latest tech. A number of OEMs geared by-wire research to their hybrid and electric products. General Motors tied the development of by-wire steering to its Hy-Wire concept. 

This research and development faced some significant hurdles. In 2005, TRW Automotive noted that the major obstacle holding back by-wire was the need to implement 42-volt electrical systems, which would permit vehicles to both utilize lighter automobile wiring harnesses and incorporate more powerful electrically-driven accessories to run drive-by-wire systems. Clearing that hurdle seemed possible since much of the industry had been hard at work investigating and working on new high-voltage systems after they were proposed in the late 1990’s as the industry standard. 

With the development of by-wire technology, 42-volt systems and alternative fuel vehicles all intersecting at the same moment, the eventual implementation of drive-by-wire systems in a number of vehicles seemed to be a given—at least to auto industry observers. The key was the delivery of high voltage systems.  

That never happened, obviously. 

(Photo courtesy of Infiniti Media) Infiniti has doubled down on its commitment to steer-by-wire technologies by offering its version in both the Q50 and Q60 models.

It didn’t because, for one, because 42-volt systems created a host of other engineering challenges that automakers would have to be addressed. Not the least of these was the fact they generated so much electricity, they would force motorists to replace a host of burnt out switches, sometimes as frequently as every 10,000 miles. Moreover, engineers were looking at having to redesign entire vehicle systems, an endeavor that proved to be just too costly. 

Drive-by-wire may have seemed to be coming at light speed, but internal development issues presented another reality—the necessary supporting technologies just weren’t ready. 

Lesson #2: More accessible solutions take precedence  

At the same time, alternate, more affordable technologies that could address the same areas as 42-volt setups were coming to the forefront. Wire multiplexing reduced the size and mass of low-voltage harnesses. Electrical power steering advanced to the point where it could run on 12 volts. High-voltage batteries were developed to run hybrid vehicles. Addressing fuel efficiency concerns, manufacturers instituted idle shutoff and began using a host of light-weight materials. 

While the industry was churning out other lightweight and power solutions, it too continued work on similar electrical driving systems. Important to keep in mind here is the fact automakers never put all of their eggs in one basket when it comes to updated systems. Even while by-wire systems were being eyed, manufacturers continued work on a host other electrical driving solutions they could bring to market.  

These included: 

  • Electro-Hydraulic Power Steering, which uses electric motors in place of a belt-driven pump to create hydraulic power. 
  • Electric Power Steering, which uses no hydraulic pressure. 
  • Electric Power Boost for Brakes – These systems made several appearances and disappearances from the market since the electric motors frequently failed. Still, they were far more prevalent than by-wire and proved that similar technology could be produced once the bugs were worked out. 

Lesson #3: Complex solutions take time

A more permanent electric power boost solution could, in fact, be on the horizon. This year ZF Friedrichshafen AG, along with Bosch and other suppliers, plans to introduce next generation technology. An electrical motor will replace conventional vacuum boosters to add force on the master cylinder plunger when a driver presses the brake. These systems look to succeed where past attempts failed because they benefit from time and experience. They incorporate the necessary modern materials and engineering knowledge gained after years of research to make electric boost brakes desirable products. 

ZF Friedrichshafen AG predicts the breakthrough will spell the end of vacuum assist within a decade. By then, they expect fully electric by-wire braking to become available. 

Time is also making a difference with Infiniti’s steer-by-wire system, dubbed Direct Adaptive Steering, found on some of its its Q50 and Q60 models. Following 10 years of development, Direct Adaptive Steering is the first production steer-by-wire system. It’s also very much a work in progress to critics who point out it doesn’t offer all the promised benefits of by-wire such as substantial weight reduction. Other complain of a lack of road “feel” which they claim impedes driving efficiency and enjoyment.  

Direct Adaptive Steering also has been knocked due production issues, including a vehicle recall related to a software problem and criticisms that cold weather can inhibit its function. Some critics say a big section of the buying public, particularly driving enthusiasts, may be put off by these complaints and steer clear of these systems. 

Infiniti, however, isn’t backing off on its support for steer-by-wire technology. It upgraded Direct Adaptive Steering in 2017 and expects to release fully autonomous driving vehicles by 2020, of which Direct Adaptive Steering will a cornerstone. 

“They’re playing the long game as they roll out steer-by-wire,” explains Mike Laughlin an automotive researcher and founder of Frontline Drive Tech, which covers industry trends. “Drive-by-wire has had a number of hiccups since OEMs starting working on it, but that’s to be expected. It’s revolutionary, so it’s going to take time, and we’re going to see multiple iterations as it makes its way into production.” 

“Automakers will have a number of wrinkles to work out as with anything new, but I expect them to make fixes,” he adds. “Eventually, by-wire will be everywhere — eventually.” 

Lesson #4: New market forces can revive developing technologies

Laughlin declares the move to autonomous driving vehicles that Nissan expects should motivate more OEMs to continue work on their own drive-by-wire systems. These vehicles have become a point of focus for futurists, urban planners, scientists, politicians and an array of industries because they address a growing need to deliver transportation in an era of growing population centers and shrinking resources.  

(Photo courtesy of GM Media) Autonomous driving vehicles, like this Chevy Bolt test vehicle, look to drive more drive-by-wire technology into production vehicles

These vehicles likely will require driver-by-wire systems since they’re easier to control than hydraulic systems. Moreover, a number of researchers note that the vast majority of autonomous vehicles will be electric to make them easier and less expensive to fuel, cheaper to maintain, while offering improved, cleaner mileage. By-wire would be obvious and ideal technology to pair with electric power. Delphi Automotive has pointed out that most electric (and hybrid) vehicles already are configured for drive-by-wire to cut weight and offer more design flexibility.  

Though widespread availability of autonomous vehicles is years away, many will be hitting the street quite soon. Today, Google vehicles are making the rounds in Northern California, Chevrolet Bolts are being tested in Arizona and San Francisco, and Uber is deploying Ford Fusion hybrids in Pittsburgh. A future with by-wire is rapidly being drawn. 

Additional developments also make the case for implementing drive-by-wire. For example, by-wire complements existing systems growing in popularity such as active lane control and emergency braking. Then there’s the possible movement towards 48-volt systems.  

After learning some hard lessons from 42-volt systems, researchers are creating 48-volt models that don’t carry the same drawbacks. Most notably, they allow automakers to maintain 12-volt connections; plus, high-voltage output is targeted for specific motors and components and therefore don’t create vehicle-wide power issues.  

Because these systems will function a bit differently from 42-volt models, there is some debate on how they could affect by-wire implementation, if at all. Laughlin says the ability to deliver higher volts can benefit any number of existing or proposed electrical systems, including by-wire. 

Lesson #5: Respond to facts, not hype

With the automotive industry once again gearing up for an eventual, potential by-wire future, it’s easy to see repairers are still in “hurry up and wait” mode. Unless you work on newer Infiniti’s, the skills to fix steer-by-wire systems won’t be in high demand for a while. 

Large scale drive-by-wire, however, is much more of a possibility than it was in 2005. This time, shops see the technology in the market and view a clearer path to its eventual adoption across the industry. That’s the great takeaway repairers need when analyzing how their business will be changing with every technical innovation. Don’t worry over speculation. Prepare when a change becomes a certainty. 

This is the same lesson shop took away from the introduction of unibody construction, waterborne finishes and new materials. There’s plenty of talk leading up to any significant development. The time to act is when change is inevitable—when the technology is hitting the streets and when OEMs and your vendors reach out with training and other assistance. 

There’s nothing wrong with eyeing trends and analyzing the latest tech automakers are exploring. Prepare when the time calls for it. That way, there’s no need to hurry up and wait or hurry at all. 

About the Author

Tim Sramcik

Tim Sramcik began writing for ABRN over 20 years ago. He has produced numerous news, technical and feature articles covering virtually every aspect of the collision repair market. In 2004, the American Society of Business Publication Editors recognized his work with two awards. Srmcik also has written extensively for Motor Ageand Aftermarket Business. Connect with Sramcik on LinkedIn and see more of his work on Muck Rack. 

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