Driven by wire

Prodrive’s chief dynamics engineer is spreading the word about by-wire technology, which is set to replace many conventional mechanical car systems with electronics. Andrew Lee reports.

Damian Harty is one of the first of what may turn out to be a new breed of engineer – an expert in and evangelist for the ‘drive-by-wire’ technology that could soon transform our everyday cars.

Chief dynamics engineer for Prodrive, the UK-based motorsport and vehicle technology specialist, Harty is one of the industry’s most vocal proponents ofby-wire, which replaces many conventional mechanical systems withcomputer-controlled electronic links.

Like many successful UK automotive engineers, Harty has a distinctly global perspective on the industry. He admitted that this is a matter of necessity rather than choice, and one of the side effects of the almost total eradication of the UK’s indigenous motor manufacturing base.

‘That has caused us to look outwards a lot more, to put our heads up, understand the different markets and go and look for the work.’

As he explained, the response you encounter to a piece of automotive technology depends on who you are talking to.

Take the Americans. According to Harty, the US is obsessed with cars being uncrashable. They want cars that can protect them from themselves as they cruise their long, straight highways.

‘If someone is inattentive, as American drivers often are, they drive straight off the road,’ said Harty.

In this situation, not unnaturally, panic sets in. Faced with the different surface conditions off the main highway, Harty said their response will be wrong and when they regain the road they will be ‘steering much too much’.

This is the type of situation in which by-wire technology, with its ability to adapt the behaviour of the car to extreme circumstances more quickly and effectively than the panic-stricken driver, could offer demonstrable benefits.

Harty and Prodrive have developed a particular take on the new technology, calling it ‘brand-by-wire’.

He argues that by-wire engineering has the potential to influence the very essence of what makes, for example, a Jaguar a Jaguar, or a Volvo a Volvo.

Car manufacturers will soon be able to define the performance characteristics of a vehicle through simple adjustments of software algorithms.

And there is no reason why the same process should not give similar flexibility to car dealers and ultimately drivers. So will we one day see by-wire (although surely given some snazzy moniker by the marketing whizz-kids) used as a selling point in car ads?

‘There are already precedents,’ said Harty. ‘A recent Fiat Punto ad featured a petite woman and a hefty bloke, and parodied the different ways in which they viewed the car. In the Punto there is a switch which changes the feel of the power steering depending on what you want.’

Harty is in fact referring to Fiat’s ‘city button’, which makes the steering lighter for the type of tight parking manoeuvre supposedly dreaded by women drivers.

‘The button is an example of brand-by-wire, albeit a small one. There are others such as adaptive dampers on the Volvo. That sort of technology is great because it can deliver a quite startlingly different feel to the car, so you can begin to have what you might call mood switches in the vehicle and deliver different things according to what the driver wants.’

If by-wire technology may ultimately give drivers more say in how their car performs, its proponents claim there could also be significant benefits for the industry.

Harty said drive-by-wire would make it easier to achieve the economies of scale offered by the use of some standard components across a range of models. At present a large amount of engineering time is required to adapt components to each model. This would be more cost-effective if they could be adjusted electronically.The damper is an example, said Harty. ‘At the very least someone has to drive most of those variants of cars every day for a month to arrive at a damper setting.

‘That is a lot of engineering activity. If you have a by-wire calibration of the damper, when it comes to the engineering you drive round a couple of laps of the track and say ‘I don’t like that, let’s turn it up a bit.’ Instead of making five or six damper changes in a day, which is fairly typical, you’re suddenly looking at 20 or 30, which is a big condensing of the engineering process. You can pretty much apply that to allby-wire systems.’

Harty claimed that from this point of view, by-wire has ‘the feeling of an inevitable process. If you look at the trends, electronics costs are getting cheaper while mechanical costs are pretty much on the floor and it’s difficult to get them any lower. Yet the pressure we are under to keep reducing costs while increasing functionality is inexorable.’

Harty believes that all the ingredients for widespread use of by-wire are in place. ‘We’re not waiting for any magic bullet, any piece of technology that will enable it.’

Obstacles remain, however, partly in the vested interests of some sections of the automotive industry in opposing such fundamental changes, and partly in the suspicions of regulators over whether critical features such as steering and brakes can safely be entrusted to electronic rather than mechanical systems.

According to Harty, legislators such as the EU are slowly but surely falling into line with the march of by-wire technology.

‘BMW have now got what is effectively full by-wire functionality in theirsteering system, and it complies with current legislation.’

Active steering is offered as an option on the 2004 BMW 5 Series. It allows the car to modify the driver’s input when necessary without disconnecting the mechanical linkage between the steering wheel and front axle.

‘Companies like BMW are paving the way to show it can be done. And to some extent it is up to all of us in the industry to push the legislation where it needs to go.’

Prodrive itself has what Harty describes as a significant ‘chip in the by-wire game’ in the form of its Active Torque Dynamics system, which monitors the driver’s input and compares it with the actual response of the vehicle through use of a central controller.

Linked to various sensors monitoring factors such as yaw rate, steering wheel angle and lateral acceleration, the controller can transfer engine torque in less than 70 milliseconds to provide enhanced stability where it is needed.

All this looks very much like the shape of things to come, and the fact that engineers such as Harty are helping to mould it is encouraging for those who want to the UK automotive sector to have a future and not just a past.

In fact, Harty is upbeat about the prospects for UK car engineering, not least because of its continuing pre-eminence in the motorsport field.

‘There’s no question that there is a tremendous amount of knowledge and engineering skills in the UK, and that is reflected in how much of the world’s top-echelon motorsport activity happens here.’

For companies such as Prodrive, expertise in developing cutting-edge technology for racing and rally cars transfers nicely to robust prototypes of production cars.

according to Harty there is also a particular ‘never-say-die’ attitude to the UK’s automotive engineers, exemplified by the heroic efforts of the team behind rally driver Petter Solberg’s Prodrive-backed Subaru team.

Harty recounts with wonder an incident when Solberg’s car crashed, was badly damaged but was rebuilt against the odds by the engineers and sent back to win the race.

‘When I looked at the photographs afterwards you could see how fundamentally bent it was,’ said Harty.

‘The guys had hammers and jacks and not much else. But instead of thinking ‘that’s blown it, never mind’ they put their minds to it, found a way to straighten the car, begged, stole and borrowed bits from all over the place and got it back together.’

According to Harty ‘that’s the kind of spirit that says it’s not over until it’s over, and that’s the thing at the core of this part of UK industry which the rest of the world recognises.’

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