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Nexteer develops electric power steering strong enough for a pickup

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Nexteer develops electric power steering strong enough for a pickup

Scott Burgess / The Detroit News

Full-size pickup trucks will begin using electric power steering within the next three years and most drivers won't even know the difference.

What they will notice is that they'll be stopping at the gas pump less often because electric power steering can boost a vehicle's fuel economy by up to 4 percent, according to executives at Nexteer Automotive, the Saginaw company that developed the system.

The fuel savings comes from removing the parasitic losses a traditional hydraulic steering system -- used in most vehicles -- creates. Nexteer's engineers have developed an electric steering system that is powerful enough to handle the heavier loads hydraulic steering systems now endure.

Hydraulic steering uses a pump attached to the engine by a belt to assist the driver in turning the vehicle's wheels. The belt is always driven when the motor is on, even if the vehicle is idling or driving straight.

The electric system, however, only uses power when it's needed.

By 2012, Nexteer, which has 22 manufacturing facilities around the world, expects to build electric power steering assemblies for 1.4 million vehicles, said Mike Richardson, Nexteer's vice president of engineering and global steering business line.

And Nexteer sees only more growth in the immediate future.

The push for electric power steering makes sense because it can increase fuel economy up to 4 percent, allows for faster development and opens the door to other fuel-saving technologies.

Ford Motor Co. has said that 90 percent of its vehicles will have EPS by 2012.

The 2011 Ford Mustang uses a Nexteer system and has been praised by critics for its excellent road manners and specifically, the linear feel to its steering.

There are a multitude of reasons for a carmaker to consider electric power steering, said Ted Seeger, Nexteer's global chief engineer -- electric steering. The most important is the 4 percent gain in fuel economy. The company notes that since 1999, Delphi Steering, which is now Nexteer, has built 12 million steering units, saving 500 million gallons of fossil fuel.

Tough government fuel economy standards have many carmakers struggling with ways to create more efficient vehicles. Pickups, in particular, struggle with fuel economy because of their inherent size.

"But electric power steering also opens up the door to other fuel-saving technologies such as start/stop, deceleration fuel shut of and electric vehicles," Seeger said.

Nexteer designers and engineers have created a system that is strong enough to move the wheels of full size trucks without increasing the voltage system, which is a key to developing this system.

Other advantages

Nexteer pointed out other advantages of its steering system during a test drive of GM full-size trucks on a small test track in Saginaw.

The system felt flawless during my short test, with a much more natural feel than even the hydraulic steering.

The steering feedback is electronic instead of real; it's based on algorithms developed by Nexteer and carmakers it works with, said Brad Sizemore, a company spokesman.

Seeger said the key to moving this steering system for use on pickup trucks was building motors strong enough to handle their heavier steering loads.

To demonstrate how well the system worked in a testing phase, Nexteer loaded a Cadillac Escalade with more than 1,000 pounds of sandbags along the front end. The steering was a breeze.

Benefits of electric power steering

Carmakers have discovered other benefits of electric power steering, Richardson said.

In the past, to test steering on a car, engineers would drive the vehicle on the track and then pull out the hydraulics to replace a valve and then reinstall it.

"It would take a couple of hours between tests," he said. "But now, with our system, you can just push a button and test a different setting."

Engineers could literally test three different steering settings during the same turn now.

Some carmakers are beginning to add different steering feels to production vehicles, and Seeger said that's just the beginning of the things electric power steering can accomplish.

Electric power steering has the ability to isolate road chatter -- those quick little bumps you can feel through the steering wheel -- and eliminate them. It can also adjust the steering feel if you are driving a severely crowned road, eliminating the pull in one direction.

Electric power steering allows for cars to park themselves through a computer steering the wheel, a feature on the Lexus LS 460 and Ford Taurus.

Seeger also noted that the steering is extremely quiet and never needs to have its fluids, hoses or belts changed.

The company is also testing ways to use electric power steering to help avoid accidents and make driving even safer.

"We're working on even more things with this platform and how to apply this technology," Seeger said.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100523/AUTO01/5230308/1148/Nexteer-develops-electric-power-steering-strong-enough-for-a-pickup#ixzz0oqoVE7Nv

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