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What is drive by wire?

Drive by wire control systems are replacing energy-intensive hydraulic and mechanical systems in cars. The transition began with electronic throttle control systems, but today even braking and steering systems are being controlled entirely by electronics.

Drive by wire replaces energy-intensive mechanical systems

One of the key preconditions for semi-autonomous or fully autonomous driving functions is drive by wire (DBW). This technology enables functions in the vehicle that were previously controlled by a mechanical transfer of forces to be controlled purely electronically. Either servomotors or electromechanical actuators are controlled through electric wires. Electronic throttle control ("E gas") was introduced into series production for the first time by the Japanese car maker Honda in its mid-size NSX model in 1995.

The electronic accelerator (electronic power control, EPC) in the NSX was combined with the cruise control and fuel injection (PGM-F) systems and replaced the conventional accelerator Bowden cable. The accelerator pedal has a sensor that continuously measures changes in the pedal angle. The signals are processed by a specially developed electronic control unit (ECU). With no time delay (i.e. in real time), the electronic throttle control (ETC) transmits control signals to the throttle actuators. To prevent time delays on the electric transmission wires, special communication protocols and bus systems have been developed. Reliable real-time data transfer at speeds of up to 10 Mbit/s is possible, for example with FlexRay.

Drive by wire reduces fuel consumption

The advantages of electronic throttle control systems are not limited to the fact that they offer a more direct engine reaction to accelerator pedal commands. Car makers also benefit from lower production costs. What is more, the first drive by wire systems prepared the way for semi-autonomous driving functions such as adaptive cruise control (ACC) that have now become established. In the meantime, numerous conventional and safety-relevant functions in the car are controlled by electronic signals. After all, the advantages of such drive by wire control systems are obvious.

Replacing energy-intensive hydraulic or mechanical systems by electronic components can result in significant reductions in fuel consumption. Furthermore, fully electronic control of mechanical components also offers the following advantages:

Secure real-time data transfer

For automotive developers, these are important factors also for controlling safety-relevant functions using x by wire. Above all, these include controlling the braking system (brake by wire), the transmission (shift by wire) and the steering system (steer by wire). Whereas shift by wire systems are already installed in numerous models – the shift signal actuates a mechanical gear shift operation via the main ECU and the transmission actuator motors perform the gear shift itself – steer by wire systems require much greater effort. If there is no mechanical backup level, there is generally the risk that the steering system will no longer function when the electric power supply fails, and in this case the car can no longer be controlled. The same applies to brake by wire applications.

What is more, legislation is making the wide-scale introduction of these systems more difficult, in spite of the fact that in the meantime changes to DIN regulations permit, for example, the use of steer by wire systems even without the parallel installation of a conventional steering system. That would also be important for drivers, as the elimination of the steering column would also remove one of the main sources of serious injuries in a road accident. Studies have also shown that drive by wire functions increase attention and concentration in traffic.

First steering system without a mechanical backup level

A view into the future of the car is currently provided by research vehicles such as the F 015 from Mercedes and the Vision Next 100 from BMW. In these vehicles, all driving commands are transmitted only electronically. This also offers manufacturers wide-ranging degrees of freedom in designing vehicle interiors. In the BMW car for example, the steering wheel disappears entirely when the autonomous driving mode is activated.

Until the first autonomous vehicles with drive by wire functions are launched on the market, car makers still need to fulfil important requirements. Only when development engineers have proven that steer by wire systems offer at least the same level of functional safety as conventional steering systems can we expect the vehicles to be approved for use on our roads.

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Dipl.-Ing. Dietmar Bichler
Bertrandt AG

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Dr.-Ing. Joachim Damasky

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Lutz Eckstein
RWTH Aachen, WKM

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Volkswagen AG

Dr. rer. nat. Andreas Eilemann
Mahle Behr GmbH & Co. KG

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Prof. Dr.-Ing. Burkhard Göschel
Burkhard Goeschel Consultancy

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Peter Gutzmer
Schaeffler AG

Dr.-Ing. Markus Heyn
Robert Bosch GmbH

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MAN Truck & Bus AG

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Pim van der Jagt
Ford-Forschungszentrum Aachen GmbH

Dr.-Ing. Stefan Knirsch
Audi AG

Dipl.-Ing. Ralph Lauxmann
Continental Teves AG & Co. oHG

Dipl.-Ing. (BA) Joachim Mathes
Valeo Schalter und Sensoren GmbH

Dr.-Ing. Harald Naunheimer
ZF Friedrichshafen AG

Dipl.-Ing. Jörg Ohlsen
Edag GmbH & Co. KGaA

Prof. Dr. Dipl.-Ing. Peter Pfeffer
Hochschule München

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Rodolfo Schöneburg

Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Dipl.-Wirtsch.-Ing. (FH) Wolfgang Schwenk
Adam Opel AG

Dr. Michael Steiner
Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Thomas Weber
Daimler AG

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Wabco GmbH

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