Explaining Active Suspension Systems and Service

Explaining Active Suspension Systems and Service

An active dampener allows for a ride without compromise and can detect a rough road or emergency situations.

Most active suspension systems come in many styles with fancy names like airmatic, dynamic or advanced. And, it doesn’t matter if it is a BMW, Mercedes or Jaguar, an active suspension must be able to react to three critical pieces of information.

First, it must act on information from the ABS and stability control system. Second, it must measure body movement. Third, it must detect the extent and rate of suspension movement. With these three pieces of information, the suspension can actively adjust the compression and rebound of the shock or strut.

Why would an engineer or automaker include this feature on a vehicle? An active dampener allows for a ride without compromise. The three inputs can be used to detect a rough road or an emergency situation where body roll could change the stability of the vehicle.

Electronic Shocks/Struts

Electronically adjustable shocks and struts use conventional mono-tube and twin-tube oil-filled dampeners. The rods, gas chambers and piston have the construction of passive units. Like a passive unit, they can fail if they leak, the gas escapes or the rods are bent. They can also wear out like a conventional unit as the oil inside breaks down and surfaces in the bore wear.

What makes these units unique are the valves with their variable orifices. These valves regulate the flow between the chambers on either side of the piston. The piston in some units, however, does not have any valving.

The size of the orifices controlled by electromagnetic solenoids can control the valves very quickly. The electrical connections and solenoids are typically found outside the body and act on the valves inside the unit using magnetism. The signal to the solenoid is pulse-width modulated and varies the voltage to change the size of the orifice.

The valves and solenoids can’t be serviced or separated from the shock or strut. If a problem is detected with the system, the valves go into a fail-safe position that is fixed, and the system becomes passive. The driver is then alerted with a message or light on the instrument cluster or message center.

Most systems will perform a circuit check when the system wakes up. This typically involves sending a signal to fully open and close the valve. If the system detects an open, short or a voltage outside of the specifications, it will set a code. 

Measuring Wheel Movement

Ride-height sensors not only measure the position of the suspension, but also the rate of movement. They are supplied with a voltage of around 5 volts. The signal voltage is changed as a magnet moves past a coil. Most sensors have three wires – ground, power and signal.

Internally, it is difficult to damage one of these sensors. Externally, however, the linkage that connects the sensor to the suspension arm can be damaged. Additionally, the connector can be damaged and cause a short or open that sets a code. If one of these sensors is replaced, it must be calibrated after it is installed.

Ride-height sensors are sometimes called suspension-position or wheel-displacement sensors. The data from the sensor is used to measure the movement of the suspension. By knowing how far and fast the suspension is moving, the module can use the information to determine the size of the orifice in the dampener to control compression and rebound. These sensors should be calibrated if a sensor is replaced, a module is reprogrammed or if the battery dies.

Measuring Body Movement

Accelerometers mounted to the body measure changes in the ride. These accelerometers are typically mounted to the strut towers. These sensors output information as gravitational forces, or “G-force,” to a module. Changes in body roll due to cornering will produce lower G-force than a pothole would.

Information from the accelerometers is coupled with data from the ride-height sensor, steering sensor and other inputs by a computer processor in a module. The module can determine if the vehicle is going around a corner or traveling down a bumpy road. With this datastream, the valving inside the dampener can be adjusted in milliseconds for the best control and ride quality.

The accelerometers on the body differ from vehicle to vehicle. Some manufacturers mount the sensors under the headlights, on strut towers and near the taillights. More sophisticated systems use more than two accelerometers mounted in various locations.

Control Module

The control module for the electronic dampeners needs more than the movement of the wheels and body to determine the correct settings for the dampeners. The module uses and shares information with the anti-lock braking system, engine control module and instrument cluster. This information is typically shared on the high-speed CAN serial data bus. On some BMW 7 Series models, the information is shared on the fiber-optic Flex Ray bus.

With all this information, the module can do some amazing things with the adjustable dampeners. Problems like nosedive under braking, torque steer and understeer on FWD vehicles can be minimized. If the vehicle has air ride, the volume and pressure inside the air springs can also be tuned along with the valving in the dampeners to optimize ride quality and control.

Most active suspension systems will perform a circuit check when the system wakes up. The system will send 5 to 12 volts to the actuators and ride height sensors. The system is also looking at the resistance in the circuit, and the amount of voltage dropped. If the system detects an open, short or voltage outside of the specifications, it will set a code. Next, the control module will fully open and close the valves in the struts. If the system does not detect any irregularities, the system will go into an active mode. 

Looking for these self-diagnostic signals can be performed using a meter. You may have to use a bypass harness or back probe the connector. If the system detects any problems, the system will go into a passive mode.

Sometimes servicing an active suspension is like rebuilding an engine with a new crankshaft and reusing the old bearings and valve springs. When a new active strut is reassembled with the old and tired spring and strut plate, the results can be less than desirable.

Upper strut mounts and bearings can be hammered to death. The upper strut mount essentially supports the vehicle weight and counters both braking and acceleration torque. Most mounts are sandwiches of rubber, metal and bearings. Over time, the rubber can lose its ability to isolate the suspension from the body. Bearings can also seize and bind, causing the vehicle to have steering problems.

Look up the ride height specifications and measure ride height front and rear, and on both sides of the vehicle. If ride height is less than specifications, the problem is most likely one or more weak springs that should be replaced. Springs should typically be replaced in pairs to maintain the same ride height side-to-side.

Weak springs also are more likely to fail. The springs on many late-model vehicles are thinner to reduce weight and have an outer plastic coating to protect the metal from corrosion. If this outer coating is cracked or damaged, corrosion can form a hot spot that eats into the spring, weakens it and eventually causes the spring to break.

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