With more and more states and local communities struggling to balance their budgets, road repairs are among the first things to be cut. In places like Detroit, where winter is particularly tough on tarmac, that can translate into potholes that match the worst you’ll find in a third-world country.
But automakers and their suppliers are rolling out some high-tech solutions that can make all but the worst bumps and ruts virtually vanish.
Electronically controlled suspensions have been around for several decades, but early systems did little more than firm up a vehicle’s shock absorbers and they usually seemed to either be too firm or too soft.
The latest technologies, such as the Magic Body Control System on the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, aims for what might be called the Goldilocks zone, delivering the right settings no matter what road conditions – or driver demands – are like.
Mercedes was one of the first luxury makers to adopt an adaptive suspension system. The technology on the outgoing S-Class was a typical reactive system that relied on suspension-mounted sensors that were designed to read wheel input. As a tire dipped into a pothole, say, that would signal a microprocessor to adjust a hydraulic piston on each steel spring, softening or stiffening things as appropriate.
The Magic Body Control System is a predictive system that is designed to anticipate rough roads and adjust the suspension just before impact, all but neutralizing potholes and bumps.
The new Mercedes technology relies on a stereo camera system mounted atop the windshield to look for uneven pavement and then decide what to do. The maker claims it can work in all but the most drastic situations, like running into a curb.
It’s reportedly taken almost six years to ready the Magic Body Control for market but don’t be surprised to see the system migrate from the flagship S-Class to other Mercedes models in the not-too-distant future, probably starting with the big CL Coupe line.
Though German supplier ZF – better known for its sophisticated transmissions – helped in the development process, Mercedes claims it owns the rights to Magic Body Control so, unlike other recent high-tech developments, the technology may not wind up falling into the hands of its competitors anytime soon.
But with camera systems showing up on a variety of vehicles, from high-line models like the S-Class down to mainstream offerings from Subaru, it would surprise no one if Mercedes’ competitors start working up their own predictive suspension systems.
In the meantime, reactive technology is getting good enough for even the most demanding motorists.
Lincoln has introduced a system for its new MKZ and updated MKS sedans that can monitor changes in road surfaces and adjust the vehicle’s suspension damping every two milliseconds. To measure that in another form, that means it can adjust the shocks of a vehicle traveling at 60 miles per hour about every two inches.
Explains Lincoln engineer Brian Naspinsky, the system, “is always active, and it underpins the expanded dynamic capabilities of the new MKS.”
One of the most celebrated, high-tech shock systems has been around for nearly a decade on various General Motors vehicles, such as the Cadillac CTS sedan and the Chevrolet Corvette sports car. It is now showing up in the line-ups of such competitors as Ferrari.
This technology isn’t much different in basic concept from the Lincoln system, though in its latest update operates even more rapidly, according to GM.
(Mercedes new S-Class is a technical tour de force. Click Here to read more.)
A key difference is that with the Magnetic Ride Control – or Magneride — system, the vehicle’s shocks are filled with what is technically known as magnetorheological fluid. Think of it as a thick oil with ultra-fine ferrous particles mixed in. By applying varying levels of magnetic energy the fluid’s viscosity – its ability to flow – can rapidly be changed.
(Click Here to read about the 2014 Cadillac XTS getting a boost to 410 hp.)
Apply enough energy from an electromagnetic and it stops flowing entirely, which instantly translates into a stiff, sporty ride. Turn the power off and the suspension will absorb sharp jolts.
There are a variety of other ways to rapidly control a vehicle’s suspension. And as the new Mercedes Magic Ride Control system suggests, we can expect plenty more to follow in the coming years as microprocessors, along with vision and other sensing systems, get faster, more accurate and less expensive.
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