Made to measure
In 2019, Pailton Engineering unveiled a prototype electric steering column for buses which has a memory function, allowing for automatic adjustment to each driver. Building on feedback from the industry, Pailton is working on a fourth prototype destined for launch at Busworld 2023
Electric steering columns that provide ergonomic adjustability are common in the automotive sector but this technology is yet to make its debut in the commercial vehicle sector.
Many manufacturers are interested in the concept, but it is up to technology suppliers to translate this vision into reality. The origins of the electric memory steering column can be traced to several conversations between Pailton Engineering and some of its key industry partners.
Many of these companies were introducing greater electrification and were interested in the idea of turning a pneumatically adjusted steering column into an electric one. If seats or mirrors could be adjusted electronically, why not extend this to the steering column?
In addition to a product that could be adjusted electronically, the aim was to provide a memory function so that a driver starting their shift could automatically adjust the seat, mirrors and steering column to a pre-recorded, optimal position. Taking the requirements from Continental and other partners, Pailton drew up a specification to start with and work began on the first prototype in 2017.
Designing and building the product required exploring new areas. Traditionally a supplier of metal parts, Pailton was now looking at new technologies including motors and electronics. Extensive research and investigation were therefore carried out. Key refinements made in the early prototypes included changing the position of the motors and decreasing the size of the packaging.
The engineers first needed to develop their own control mechanism for a standalone column. The result was a steering column that could be adjusted electronically using an app on the user’s phone. A key partner in developing this was CSES Engineering, which made a significant contribution by developing the control mechanism.
The culmination of months of research and development was the unveiling of the third prototype in Brussels, for Busworld in 2019. In partnership with Continental, seat provider Isri and electric bus manufacturer Ebusco, the electric memory steering column was demonstrated in public for the first time.
For Kostas Poulios, it was a proud moment. As Principal Design and Development Engineer at Pailton Engineering, he had overseen the development of the product from those early conversations through to its appearance in a show bus at Busworld: ‘‘After so much hard work, it was fantastic to see the demonstration column in action and to receive so much positive feedback from drivers and manufacturers. However, we also knew this would be an opportunity to assess what refinements we needed to make going forward, so the feedback was essential.’’
“Technological feasibility is one thing, but we needed to see what level of demand there was for this type of innovation. Obviously, we knew from earlier conversations with industry partners that there was an appetite here, but it wasn’t until Busworld in 2019 that we knew we were onto a winner,’’ says Roger Brereton, Head of Sales at Pailton Engineering.
The key difference between the fourth prototype and its predecessors will be the absence of the control mechanism. The third prototype relied on a device purpose-built by Pailton for demonstration, but the latest design is intended for integration within an existing vehicle’s architecture, so the vehicle’s ECU will take over this function. Although it will be the manufacturer’s responsibility to integrate this into their existing architecture, Pailton’s engineers are designing the column with compatibility and ease of use in mind.
For Suraj Jandu, Lead Project Engineer, there have been many challenges. ‘‘The biggest challenge is the adjustment. We need to ensure the motors are able to operate with the column and the additional weight of the dashboard. We need to guarantee a smooth transition here, even after repeated use.’’
Extensive and rigorous testing will be carried out both in-house and in independent testing facilities, ensuring the column is still operable after 40,000 cycles. Although challenges lie ahead, strenuous testing is a natural part of getting any product to market. Pailton is aiming for a generic product that any bus or coach manufacturer can choose.
- Pailton Engineering provides custom steering parts and full steering systems for the bus and coach sector. To find out more, visit pailton.com
Why buses and coaches?
In a profession where changing shifts require constant readjustments as new drivers enter the cabin, the ability to easily adjust the steering column to the optimal position could be enormously beneficial. Bus drivers are known to suffer disproportionately from musculoskeletal ailments, owing to repeated postural stresses that are common in this occupation.