As Easy as ABS: Brakes Hit U.S.

Dec. 28, 2000
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.

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.