Computers are taking over our cars. In the longer term, self-driving vehicles have the potential to make significant cuts to road deaths, congestion, and pollution. Right now though, most of the immediate impact can be seen in infotainment systems. Focus groups have told car OEMs that to appeal to them as customers, they need to replicate the smartphone experience within our cars, which is why LTE modems and large touchscreens are proliferating as rapidly at auto shows as they are at Best Buy. That’s OK with us at Ars Technica, because processing power also makes things like DSC Sport‘s active suspension technology possible, as we found out this past weekend on our trip to Watkins Glen, NY.
First, a little background. Generally, a car’s suspension consists of various metal bits that connect the wheels to the chassis—wishbones or struts and so on that allow the wheel to articulate—and some combination of spring and shock absorber to control that articulation. A well-engineered suspension should provide good road-holding (keeping all four tires in optimum contact with the road surface) while also insulating the car and its occupants from bumps and jolts. This is easier said than done. Very few cars are successful at both, with their designers opting instead for soft springs and wallowy comfort at the expense of handling, or stiff springs and great cornering ability combined with a spine-rattling ride.
But active suspension systems promise we can drive our cake and eat it too, using software and CPU cycles to dynamically control what each wheel does. The technology came to the attention of the general public in the 1980s, thanks to its use in Formula 1 back when its rulebook encouraged innovation. Early active systems used in F1 used hydraulic actuators to control wheel movement. The aim was to keep the car as flat and level to the ground as possible. The constant ride height kept the car’s wings at their optimum angles for creating downforce—think of the exact opposite of a plane’s wing, where the air pushes the car (and therefore the tires) down onto the road. Lotus Cars were an early pioneer of such active systems, but they were always too complex and too expensive for use beyond a number of technology demonstrators.