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By wire? Bye, bye control

By wire? Bye, bye control

There is some disturbing news coming from automakers in Detroit, and I'm not talking about the layoffs we've all read about, as unfortunate as they are. What I'm referring to is the trend toward by-wire design, the coming elimination of mechanical linkages to throttles, brakes, and steering systems.

Now, I know the expected benefits: fewer potential pollution problems, due to the disappearance of some fluids, like those in brake lines; the increased efficiency that will come from the elimination of brake drag; improved crashworthiness through, among other things, elimination of the steering column; and safer roads, thanks to adaptive cruise control and collission-avoidance systems. Those are advantages we can all eagerly look forward to.

But what about the price we'll pay? Not the sticker price, which is bound to be high. The cultural change. We will lose control of the driving experience.

Item: Press on the gas pedal now and you directly control the air flow into the engine-and the speed of the car. Throttle-by-wire systems will introduce sensors that will tell a powertrain controller how much to open the throttle.

Item: Need to slow down or stop? In the future, there won't be any hydraulics. Instead, force and travel sensors on the pedal will signal a controller that will decide how much deceleration you really want, then signal electric motors at the wheels.

Item: Turning a steering wheel to go around corners will be history. Replacing that action will be a system where sensors tell a microprocessor how far you turned the wheel, and the microprocessor used signal an electric motor that operates the rack and pinion.

To be sure, automakers are including so-called "feel emulators" so you'll think you're controlling the braking and steering, but don't be fooled. You're practically out of the loop.

Think what this means to those of us who love the feel of the road and the control of the car. Children will be able to drive now, assuming their feet can reach the simulated pedal. And what about such things as our hard-fought-for reputation in Massachusetts as terrible drivers? It won't matter any more.

What kind of progress is this? Solutions: Let us over-ride the wires. Or, let us install the sensors ourselves. Oops, now we're really out of control.

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