The entire European automotive industry is working toward chassis integration – linking the braking, steering and suspension systems to form a single unified network that coordinates the functioning of each system.

Vehicle manufacturers in particular are focussing on separate in-house chassis integration programmes since they consider the chassis as integral to the ‘character’ of their vehicles.

Integration of chassis sub-systems represents a significant step towards improving the vehicle’s safety. Integrating steering, braking and suspension systems enhances the active safety features of the vehicle by directly intervening with the vehicle’s driving dynamics, thereby significantly reducing the occurrence of accidents. This networking of the systems will also improve the driving comfort of the vehicle.

Recent analysis by Frost & Sullivan estimates the total European market for integrated chassis systems to grow by a compound annual growth rate of over 5% by 2010. Volumes are projected to swell from an estimated 358,400 units in 2007 to about 1,261,600 units in 2010.

The three main integration approaches involve integrating the braking and suspension systems, the steering and braking systems, and the steering, braking and suspension systems. Among these, the penetration of integrated steering and braking systems is likely to be the strongest, increasing by about 5.5% by the end of this decade.

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Chassis integration requires considerable investments in fundamental engineering as the thrust will be on connecting individual chassis systems with electronic, electrical and mechatronic components. Nonetheless, the active safety features in a vehicle perceptibly improve the marketable benefits and enrich the brand value of the vehicle maker.

Research analyst Rajeev Poduval said: “Chassis integration efforts demonstrate dedication to advanced solutions and help vehicle makers to position themselves as technology innovators. Moreover, the link between integration and enhanced safety can be used as a selling point.”

Networked solutions can also be offered as an optional feature, providing vehicle makers with additional revenue. In the long term, centralisation of the electronic control units and other components across the individual chassis systems will decrease the number of parts and further cut costs.

Since each manufacturer follows a unique roadmap to chassis integration, suppliers need to customise chassis systems for specific tasks and functions. This has led to a proliferation of communication protocols between the components of the chassis systems, which, in turn, have complicated the task of networking the individual chassis systems. However, a consortium of leading vehicle makers and suppliers has been formed to address this issue and develop a transparent electrical/electronic interface between the chassis components.

As tier I and II suppliers synergise, vehicle makers will gradually gain control over the supply chain due to their lead in the integration process. In Europe, BMW and DaimlerChrysler are expected to reign over the integrated chassis systems market.

“Vehicle makers source most of their systems and components from a pool of suppliers to maintain their production flow and will benefit by developing the chassis network architecture internally and demanding integration-ready system modules from the suppliers,” said Poduval. “This allows them to make specific demands from suppliers and thus derive supply chain efficiencies.”

The only significant challenge to this burgeoning market is lack of regulations or engineering guidelines for integrating chassis sub-systems. This hampers a more rapid market introduction of networked solutions. However, the EU is expected to enforce legislation in the near future that calls for makers to market vehicles that have active safety features, thereby driving the pace of chassis integration.