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5 Innovations for Lighter, Smarter Auto Parts

Drive-by-wire Systems

Usually when people talk about an "electric vehicle," they're referring to the fact that it has an electric motor that turns the wheels. But there's another meaning for the phrase — it can also refer to cars that replace heavy and bulky mechanical linkages with lighter, smaller electric components. Commonly referred to as "drive-by-wire," or "x-by-wire," these electrical and electronic components can be used to more precisely control throttle response, steering and even braking.

This particular technology claims a lineage from fighter jets. Fly-by-wire received its baptism by fire, literally, when it was used as the sole control method for the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which debuted way back in 1978. Jokingly dubbed "the Electric Jet" at first by wary pilots, it eventually acquired the nickname "Viper," along with pilot respect, as it proved itself repeatedly in combat.

"By-wire" controls went on to be used in both military and commercial aircraft, and eventually the auto industry.

Since by-wire controls take up less space, that means auto designers can provide more creature comforts such as better leg- and head-room, and make fewer design compromises overall. And since they weigh less, by-wire systems let the vehicles they're installed on go faster, farther or both.

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of going to fully electronic systems. What if, after all, they suffer from faulty programming, just like the software we use on our PCs sometimes does? The last thing you want is a computer glitch preventing you from applying the brakes when you really need them.

In actuality, mechanical systems wear out, break and experience other problems as well. As with many other automotive innovations, it could just be a matter of time before people accept the newer control technology as "normal," once it's been proven through increasingly wider use.