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No more steering wheel?

Monday, November 04, 2002

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

If you want to really change how drivers interact with their cars, why not just eliminate the steering wheel?

That may be a possibility if "steer by wire" systems become a reality, said Ed Schlesinger, co-director of the three-year-old General Motors Collaborative Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon and associate head of the CMU's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

Just as "fly by wire" systems in new airliners and fighter jets replace the mechanical links between pilot controls and the plane's control surfaces with electronically controlled actuators, automobile engineers are studying whether the mechanical devices drivers now use to control their cars can be replaced.

Steering wheels make mechanical sense, Schlesinger noted. But if a vehicle's wheels are moved with an electronically controlled actuator, a steering wheel will no longer be necessary. In that case, a joystick might make as much sense as a wheel, he added.

Steering by wire would allow engineers to eliminate the bulky steering mechanism, saving weight and cost. Likewise, "brake by wire" might save money by eliminating the hydraulic system used to control brakes. Electronic control might also permit new capabilities, such as using the brakes as a crude backup steering system if the main vehicle steering should fail.

A major concern with "X by wire" systems is the possibility of an electronic failure causing loss of control. In airplanes, where cost is not a major concern, engineers have included a number of redundant electronic controls, so if one or more systems fail, backups are available.

Cars are more price-sensitive, however, so highly redundant systems are not practical, Schlesinger said. A possible solution being explored by CMU engineers is called "robust reconfigurability."

Cars already have a number of computer processors, each responsible for different components. With robust reconfigurability, however, all of the processors would be linked in a network that is responsible for all of the components. In such a system, if one component fails, other components would be assigned to take over its duties.

For instance, if a processor controlling the car's steering would fail, a robust reconfigurable system might shift those steering duties to another processor that previously had been performing a lower priority task, such as operating the radio

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