As Easy as ABS: Brakes Hit U.S.

Article December 28, 2000
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And now there are three. That summarizes a series of events
leading up to the current situation in which electronically
controlled antilock brakes (ABS) are being placed on all big
vehicles under federal order as this century ends.

The
number three is the count of multi-national makers of ABS
devices ready to deliver to what has been seen as a
multi-million-dollar market for the devices in the U.S. It
compares with the dozen or so producers that lined up to serve
the market in 1975, when regulators first ordered ABS systems on
big vehicles.

A lot has happened since 1975 when antilocks
failed so badly that regulators pushed enforcement of the ABS
rule to the back burner. Truck users who still bear the scars of
1975 hope there will be no rerun this time around. There was
plenty of blame to go around after the 1975 rule was adopted and
antilock malfunctions started showing up.

Regulators were
charged with ordering use of the systems before they were fully
developed and tested. "Safety advocates," were accused of
pushing regulators to make the premature move. Some ABS systems
were found to be defective when put on the road.

As new
generation ABS systems were developed, several truck makers
offered them as standard equipment. But antilocks often were
sold as delete options, which meant that a new vehicle's price
would be cut, if the buyer elected to skip ABS. When the number
of systems deleted climbed to a majority level, there were those
with doubts about truckers' willingness to aid in safety
research.

There have been no major reports of ABS trouble
since the first group of vehicles affected-tractor models-began
using mandatory ABS devices last spring. There have been
questions raised about the successful transmission of ABS
electrical signals in tractor-trailer combinations. Mandatory
installation in trailers starts next spring.

In spring,
1999, ABS systems will be required on trucks with hydraulic
brakes if their gross-vehicle-weight ratings are above 10,000
lb. U.S. regulators have never done much with this type of
hardware, so a lot remains to be seen American ABS suppliers
with European ties say hydraulic devices have been proved on
that side of the Atlantic. Seasoned truck people here throw a
cloud over this thinking when they recall that many trucks which
have done very well in Europe have never fit in on this side of
the Atlantic.

There's a final question about the future of
ABS devices. Are three manufacturing groups enough to serve this
large market?

The three

The three surviving
manufacturing groups say they have taken pains to get the
1975-type bugs out of the latest systems. They point with
confidence to the fact that regulators closely checked the
newest generation of ABS devices and found them sound before
ordering their use.

Here's a look at the three producer
combinations in the ABS field. Automotive Operations of Rockwell
International Corp. formerly held the lead in ABS sales here.
When the German producer Wabco first set up a North American
office in suburban Detroit it signed up with Rockwell in a joint
venture in the ABS and other brake fields. They were the first
German company to get such a tie. Meanwhile, the Rockwell parent
firm decided to concentrate on other interests and turned its
Automotive Operations into an as-yet unnamed free-standing
company.

Back in the ABS market, the Rockwell Wabco joint
venture has just added a compact control unit for its ABS
systems in tractors, which do not need the traction control
function. Smaller and less complex are typical of the
refinements made to ABS systems lately.

Bendix of Elyria,
Ohio, once a dominant producer of big truck air brakes and
perhaps the second manufacturer to show an antilock system to
the trade press, is another of the three surviving suppliers.
Now a unit of AlliedSignal, Bendix had linked up with Knorr
Bremse of Germany before the contraction of the ABS field.
Things really got intense in March when AlliedSignal and Knorr
agreed to buy the air brake system business of Echlin Inc., led
by the Midland line started in Michigan and the Grau firm from
Germany.

Eaton Corp. was the last major supplier to work out
a partnering deal. The announcement of the alliance said Robert
Bosch Corp. would be manufacturing the hardware while Eaton
would be supplying the sales and field support. The latest ABS
offering from the pair is called Generation 4. Its features
include an advanced traction control and a streamlined wiring
harness for simpler installation.

German influence

American producers milled around in the antilock market after
late 1975. At first, they weren't sure antilocks would ever
stage a comeback; however, by the 1980s, it looked like they
would. Development of new and refined systems got moving. Some
testing started but delete options were taking a great deal of
the market.

Meanwhile, they never gave up on ABS systems in
Germany and other European markets. They continued producing and
improving the hardware. When the going got tough at the end of
the 1975 debacle, Congress instructed regulators not to bring
antilocks back until they were redone, tested and found sound.
American firms that retained an interest in the ABS business
turned to Europeans with more up-to-date experience for help in
developing the generation of ABS devices, which won approval for
use in the late 1990s.

Ken Kelley is a truck writer based in
Dearborn, Mich. You may write him in care of the editor.

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