BWI Group vice president Dan Warrell

BWI Group vice president Dan Warrell

Features such as automatic transmissions, air conditioning, power steering or radios began as novelties for the most exclusive models and eventually achieved widespread application on mass market vehicles.

For example, at the recent Los Angeles Motor Show, General Motors announced it would fit BWI's MagneRide as standard in the MY2013 XTS. The BWI Group acquired the business of Delphi Chassis Systems on 1 November 2009 and its product portfolio is split into two groups: ride & handling technologies and braking technologies.

BWI says its engineering philosophy can be summarised as "innovation with design simplicity," a strategy demonstrated in technologies such as electronically controlled braking and stability systems, the MagneRide controlled damping system and the MR Powertrain Mount. BWI Group vice president Dan Warrell talked to just-auto concerning his outlook on the industry.

j-a: Progress in introducing the technology into mass market applications has been relatively slow. Where do you see further growth for active suspension technologies?

DW: "Adoption of active chassis technologies has been steady and we're now starting to see manufacturers use them more effectively, integrating them into their brand's DNA - the development, the positioning and the sales process. Achieving this level of acceptance is the hardest part of any technology's introduction and can be the turning point in terms of its market penetration.

"Further growth will come from the same segments where vehicle manufacturers see potential. In general, buyers are continuing to downsize, selecting smaller vehicles that have higher equipment levels. As a result, some market segments are subdividing, creating new types of vehicle that match their target customers' lifestyle requirements much more closely.

"The increasing diversity of the crossover segment is evidence of this. Premium brands must create new models that offer either a superior driving experience within a tighter package or a very different vehicle concept. More advanced passive suspension technologies and adaptive chassis systems, from companies such as BWI Group, will support this."

j-a: How strong will demand really be for adaptive chassis technologies? Aren't people more interested in functions and features that either improve fuel economy or convenience?

DW: "When buyers walk into showrooms, they expect to see technical progress, technologies that differentiate the new models from their predecessors and their competitors. What we hear from our customers is that MagneRide addresses that need directly. The way it works is very different and it really captures customers' imagination.

"The magneto-rheological damper fluid in MagneRide contains tiny iron particles that can be quickly but temporarily magnetised by energising electrical coils in the damper piston. When the damper is in its softest setting, the current is switched off and the particles are randomly dispersed and provide little damping. Applying a current magnetises the particles, which then attract each other in proportion to the strength of the magnetic field, increasing the resistance to flow and stiffening the damping.

"The result is an ability to vary the damping force almost instantaneously over a wide range, just by varying the current applied. Knowing that the system is always on, responding to changes in the road conditions, the vehicle's traction and the driver's inputs is really important. Buyers are more willing to pay for technologies that they will use all the time. And, the fact that MagneRide also provides different driving modes that the driver can control and demonstrate, also helps."

j:a: How important is it still to have a 'marketing button' for the driver to select different modes? Don't drivers tend to pick a favourite setting and leave it?

"This depends on the vehicle's brand characteristics and how the manufacturer wants the driver to interact with the vehicle. Some don't want the driver to worry about which suspension setting to use in different driving situations and we work with them to adapt the control algorithm to automatically adjust the performance.

"Some want to ensure the suspension system performance contributes to a driving experience that's consistent with their brand and model's characteristics. These tend to be the manufacturers that see ride and handling as a key element of their brand's appeal.

"When a carmaker designs a vehicle for a market in which drivers want to interact and control the vehicle's driving behaviour more directly, they usually provide different driving modes for the consumer to select. This allows the driver to demonstrate and experience MagneRide's ability to alter the vehicle dynamics. The system is easy to tune and can be set up so it works with other systems. The gearshifts and throttle response can alter as well to provide a more highly tuned driving experience.

"BWI is happy to work to provide whatever level of choice OEMs believe their customers prefer and MagneRide's flexibility and speed of response makes this simple."

j-a: The growth of niche vehicles such as sports-SUVs and more dynamic large cars seems to be driving innovation in ride and handling. The BMW X6 has torque vectoring, the 7 Series has rear wheel steering and the Range Rover uses active stabiliser bars. How hard is it for OEMs to interpret and deliver their brand characteristics in these new segments?

DW: "It's not the only challenge, but getting the vehicle dynamics right is an important factor in a vehicle's successful launch. Innovations in ride and handling can help to provide the kind of differentiation that creates or extends the product's competitive advantage. These types of projects can often require a specialist technical partner to work closely with the OEM.

"The vehicle manufacturer understands their customers and what those customers expect from the brand, better than anybody. To introduce a technology such as MagneRide, BWI Group works closely with the OEM to understand how the brand characteristics translate into technical targets and then tune our technology to deliver them. In some cases, we take more of a supporting role for their own specialists as they calibrate and optimise the system themselves."

j-a: How long will it be before adaptive chassis technologies move from premium applications to higher volume models?

DW: "That's hard to answer definitively. Customers and brand managers want the performance that adaptive chassis technologies can provide. BWI Group supplies MagneRide dampers, dynamic engine mounts and active stabiliser bar systems that are all suitable for a range of vehicle types and sizes and while these technologies are not yet fitted on mass market vehicles, volumes are increasing.

"Having supplied magneto-rheological engine mounts to the high-performance 2010 Porsche 911 GT3, the company plans to introduce the technology on other models and platforms. Companies with class-leading dynamic performance want to maintain their competitive edge. The trickle-down effect starts as they roll technologies out to their entire model range and continues as other companies start to fit them on their halo models.

"As with any new technology, marketplace acceptance must first achieve a critical mass. As consumers come to understand, appreciate and demand the benefits, the technology has the potential to rapidly increase its market penetration. Features such as automatic transmissions, air conditioning, power steering or radios began as novelties for the most exclusive models and eventually achieved widespread application on mass market vehicles.

"Active chassis technologies have similar potential. In the US, Cadillac initially offered MagneRide as optional equipment on the high-performance CTS-V, which set a record for a series-production sedan at the N?rburgring. It proved so successful they are now offering the technology as standard equipment on the new XTS sedan. We believe this may be the start of a trend."

j-a: How much harder is it to integrate an active suspension programme into development?

DW: "These days, with technologies such as MagneRide, it is much easier than before. BWI Group supplies both passive dampers and MagneRide and the principle of testing the car, then making adjustments is the same for both. The main difference is the speed at which things progress.

"Passive damper tuning is much slower and more laborious, which costs manufacturers time and money. To tune a passive damper, you have to remove it from the car and dismantle it in order to try out alternative shim stacks. With MagneRide, an engineer with a laptop sits in the car and tunes the system on the fly.

"With each subsequent vehicle integration, as engineers better understand the full capabilities of MagneRide, they are able to improve the driving dynamics of the vehicle even further.