DETROIT-After seven years and $10 million, Ford Motor Co. managers have killed a program to create a world-class active suspension for its luxury line. As 1994 ended, the Thunderbird test vehicle used to develop the system went to the crusher.
An extremely expensive engineering dead end?
No, says Prabhakar Patil, manager of Ford's Vehicle Electronics Department.
Ford learned many important power-electronics lessons and made connections with suppliers that will help the company on projects like electric power steering and the electric-car program, Mr. Patil said in an interview at Ford's Research Lab.
And the electronics hardware and actuators for the system were not crushed, he noted. They were shelved, waiting for component prices to drop and a market that will pay a premium for an ultra-smooth ride and race-car-like handling.
'Snuffed' for value
Ford management feels that the market-even the luxury-car market-has swung hard toward value. High-technology has taken a back seat to price.
``People are becoming very price sensitive to features as the car prices become more and more significant fractions of people's take-home pay,'' said Mr. Patil.
``We believe it's good technology. But we didn't want to push it on people. We'd rather have it pulled by market forces. Something competitive will have to happen.''
Active suspensions are electrically or hydraulically powered systems that behave more like a skier's leg than a simple spring and hydraulic damper. They respond to road irregularities with a smoothness, speed and intelligence that floats the vehicle above the ground.
Mr. Patil, who takes staircases two steps at a time, said Ford shelved active suspension without a single customer clinic. Luxury-car buyers were never asked to sample its supple ride and razor-edge handling or guesstimate a price.
``I don't want to quote prices, but I think we could offer it for quite a bit less'' than $5,000, he said. Nissan charges $7,000 for its system in the Infiniti Q45a.
Mr. Patil said power electronics and motor prices continue to drop rapidly. And perhaps soon, the value equation will add up.
Since the late 1980s when Lotus Engineering in England first offered the world a peek at its active suspension, engineers have dreamed of these ultra-sophisticated suspension systems.
Ford has spent about $1.5 million a year since 1987 on an eight-person team working with suppliers. The main suppliers were Bosch-General Electric Automotive Motors of Fort Wayne, Ind., Thompson-Saginaw of Saginaw, Mich., and International Rectifier of El Segundo, Calif.
Ford tackled three principal problems with active suspension:
Weight: Active suspension in prototype form was 200 pounds heavier than the standard Lincoln Mark VIII air suspension. Ford says it can get its system down to about 50 to 60 pounds extra.
Leaks: The earliest systems were powered hydraulically, requiring complicated, leak-prone reservoirs, plumbing and pumping systems. Ford's system is electrical. A dual 12- and 48-volt alternator pumps power into two bi-polar, lead-acid batteries. Permanent magnet motors within each vertical strut drive a low-friction, ballnut-screw mechanism to provide wheel and body control.
Power consumption. Early systems required as much as 10 horsepower, which adversely effected fuel economy. Ford's system now averages about one-third of a horsepower, and the motors on each wheel can also act as generators, turning the energy of hitting a bump into electricity fed back into the battery.
Mr. Patil says the system is essentially ``CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) neutral.''