Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2002   by Andrew Ross

Cover Story: Keeping the Rubber on the Road – Today’s Ride Control

If ever there was a paradox in the aftermarket, it would be ride control: most consumers know what a shock or strut is, but few if any know how important they are to the safe operation of the vehicle.It is a problem that the aftermarket has wrestled with for years. The fact is that, despite all the research into supporting the case of ride control maintenance--the most notable being Tenneco Automotive's admirable research into the deleterious effect of ride control failure on stopping distances and handling--it continues to be problematic at the service level.It shows few signs of any dramatic changes, but this does not mean that the market remains unchanged altogether. The aftermarket is going to see continual change due to OE influences on suspension system design and in terms of technologies brought to the aftermarket.

One such example is Delphi’s Driver Selectable Ride (DSR) system, introduced at the AAPEX show in Las Vegas. DSR, available in the spring of 2002, is a selectable damping control system that responds to the driver’s input. Targeted at the trailer and load-hauling light truck driver, the monotube-based system allows the driver to stiffen the shock valving and improve vehicle and trailer handling, or select the normal condition to maximize ride comfort when the trailer is removed.

The stand-alone system incorporates a patented solenoid valve design that switches between two independent valving disk stacks to provide the ability to change shock damping.

“One of Delphi Aftermarket Operations’ strategies is to be a leader in transforming Original Equipment technology to the aftermarket,” says Ted Thacker, general director, Global Sales & Marketing Delphi Aftermarket Operations. “With almost 250 million cars and trucks already on the road in North America alone, Delphi wants to offer owners of older vehicles the same new, OE quality products that are being introduced on dealer lots. Our selectable damping control system is a perfect example of this goal, allowing existing vehicle owners to control ride characteristics of their truck with a flip of a switch.”

The system, developed with OEM design techniques and hardware, maximizes heat dissipation and the overall system has a low current draw and little effect on fuel economy.

In a turnabout strategy of sorts, Ford’s F-150 has opted for an aftermarket brand, with Rancho products being outfitted as part of the FX4 off-road package. “This option package is a testament to the power of the Rancho brand and an invaluable opportunity to grow the off-road suspension aftermarket,” said Mark Mojica, national sales manager of special markets, Tenneco Auto-motive. The appearance of this product, and the accompanying off-road package, is expected to bring new consumer groups into the off-road world.

Tenneco Automotive has been put in the interesting position of having an aftermarket-bred brand become a high-profile addition to the OE contingent of packages.

For brands that have been associated with automakers, this is nothing new, of course. “I haven’t noticed any real changes in recent years,” says Kenny Ross, product manager, suspension division, Sachs North America. “In Europe Sachs came out with all-aluminum shocks for BMW 5 series. In due time that is going to carry over to car manufacturers here. I’m sure that this will happen.”

Ross laments the fact that the aftermarket is handicapped by a reluctance to inspect–the ongoing consequence of dubious upsell practices by some retailers–but says that this can be countered, judging from his experience before moving to his current position.

“Part of my job was to spend four or five days a month at the installer customers, about 400 installer calls a year. (At one chain) on their repair orders, let’s say the customer needed a water pump, during the time the car was on the hoist, the technician would look at what else might need replacing, and on the back of the repair order, there would be a ranking of what was most important to fix. Obviously, in this case the water pump falls into number one, but shocks and struts were consistently placed at the bottom of the list by the technicians.” What that showed was that the technicians also needed a better understanding of the importance of properly performing ride control. But there is no magic solution to the problem.

“Even more so, when you have cars with struts, the cost becomes a serious issue. So the biggest thing that we are up against is consumers’ awareness of why the car has lost performance,” says Ross.

Of course, not all OE developments hit the aftermarket in short order. Some roll up and down our streets for years before they finally end up in a service bay. A good example of this is General Motors’ air ride/level control systems from the early 1990s.

“The most common problem we find with those systems is that the (electronic) struts are no longer available,” says Gary Lakin, supervisor for the ACDelco Technical Assistance Center. “So you have to replace them with conventional struts, but then you end up with a level control warning lamp on the dash.” There is a procedure to fool the electronics in the PCM, but this situation serves as a good example of what technicians can be faced with, and probably have not accounted for in their labor estimate.

“Most of the technicians do not have scan tools that have access capability for many of these systems,” says Lakin. Systems like Continuously Variable Road Sensing Suspension (CVRSS) control a variety of systems, and receive a number of inputs of yaw, wheel to body position, vehicle speed, and lift/dive, as well as actuators to react. While this and other systems like it are notably reliable, problems can arise if the technician is not fully versed in the specific system he is working on. “The technician really needs to go to the manual and know which system he is working on. Some support dash diagnostics; others require you to go to the trunk and read an LED trouble code. ‘I can’t get the codes,’ is a comment we get regularly.”

Lakin says that a direction that he continually gives is to follow the diagnostic tree from the beginning. “A lot of times guys call just looking for reassurance that they’re on the right track, that they’re still a good tech, even if they can’t skip down to step three.”

“Proper inspection and consumer education can go a long way to improving ride control sales,” says Carlo Falcigno, national product and training manager, ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket, which manufacturers the Gabriel ride control line. “In recent studies we’ve conducted, the data indicated that 40% of vehicles being seen by installers needed shocks and struts. It is true that because of newer lighter suspension systems, problems with ride control products are more difficult to detect. It is also true that the durability of OE shocks and struts is increasing.

“Proper inspection is extremely important. Some of the conditions to check or inquire about would be steering wheel vibration, nose-dive when braking, veering in side winds, excessive lean or sway on turns, excessive bounce on rough road surfaces, uneven tire wear, oil leaks from the shocks or struts or dented /damaged housings. Consumers need to be educated in the value of replacing shocks and struts. In focus groups, we found that the number of consumers we surveyed that said ‘safety would not encourage them to buy shocks and struts’ was zero,” says Falcigno.

While the technology of variable ride control is creeping into the aftermarket, the reluctance to inspect and sell the sometimes-expensive service continues. The only remedy is an old-fashioned one: proper inspection, customer communications, and efficient repair procedures. Step one for many in the aftermarket is believing that ride control maintenance is about more than just smoothing out the bumps in the road; it’s about the safe operation of a vehicle and that is a message that carries some weight.

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