Advances in automotive electronics and the evolution of supplier-automaker relationships are combining to not only pack 1996 model vehicles with technology but also make that technology work as an integral part of the total vehicle.

Historically, electronics suppliers develop systems for years before an automaker finally decides to install the technology on its vehicles. Then the suppliers scramble to make the adjustments necessary to optimize the system for individual models. Antilock braking systems (ABS) and air bags are two big examples.

Today, however, with suppliers coming into vehicle development much earlier than before, electronics are being refined and improved as they become part of the overall vehicle system.

Because ABS is now standard equipment on most vehicles, who would guess that the ABS for the '96 Taurus/Sable has been in development for five years? Robert Bosch Corp. first got involved in the Taurus/Sable in late 1990 when it was invited to compete in what amounted to a year-long design contest against incumbent ITT Automotive. In 1991 Bosch was awarded the business, and development began immediately.

John Moloney, Bosch's Ford sales manager for chassis and safety systems, says the first order of business was to identify the appropriate engine compartment real estate for the hydraulic control unit and routing for the wheel-speed sensor. While that was going on Bosch did winter and summer testing with the old Taurus/Sable platform to establish performance parameters.

"In the second year you start incorporating the platform-specific Bosch ABS on the old platform with new platform components," explains Mr. Moloney. "At this point the design starts being production-intent, and durability testing begins."

Between the second and third year, a change was made to another component that required Bosch to redesign the sensor head. "You hope it doesn't happen, but it's not unexpected," says Mr. Moloney. Fortunately for both parties, the change came at a time when the added cost was negligible. "We were just starting to do the mold for the sensor head at the time, so it just had to be adjusted," he recalls.

The final year of development confirms the final design of the system and usually involves software tweaks; "We did some special noise testing late in the process because the customer changed the performance requirement," Mr. Moloney recalls. "They challenged us to meet a new target."

To facilitate the change from ITT, Bosch stationed engineers at Ford's plants in Chicago and Atlanta to help resolve issues as they arose. In February, Bosch conducted day-long seminars for assembly plant workers to familiarize them with the new ABS.

Bosch's five-year lead time on the '96 Taurus/Sable compares with the three- to four-year advance notice it usually gets. "You're definitely going pretty fast at that point," says Mr. Moloney. "It's not allowing you a whole lot of time to fix problems. Getting involved earlier substantially improves the supplier's ability to prepare for production."

Another example of supplier involvement in Taurus/Sable's electronics is UT Automotives generic electronic module (GEM). The GEM is responsible for 14 electrical functions, including a feature that protects the car from inadvertent battery drain by turning off accessories and interior lamps after 40 minutes of inactivity, and a driver door lock disable function, which prevents the driver's door from being locked if the key is in the ignition.

UTA also was responsible for the platform's complete electrical distribution system, power network box, 80% of the wiring harnesses, keyless entry switch, multifunction turn signal and ignition switch.

Honda of America Mfg. branched out to a new supplier for '96 Civic's ABS. ITT Automotive, which also supplies the ABS for Chrysler's redesigned minivan, relied on parallel development in Japan and Germany to launch the first low-cost MK20 ABS in the U.S.

Kelsey-Hayes, a division of Varity Corp., is supplying ABS for the '96 1/2 Ford CT120 Escort replacement, the new F-Series Ford pickup and Opel Vectra. General Motors Corp.'s full-size vans and Sonoma and S-10 pickups move from Kelsey's EBC 4 to EBC 10 ABS in 1996.

Lucas Industries Inc. worked with glass manufacturer Libbey-Owens-Ford Co. and GM to develop the first-ever passive windshield wiper system on a U.S. model. Cadillac's 1996 Eldorado, Seville STS and SLS, and Deville Concours are equipped with a Lucas-designed sensor/microprocessor that detects rain and activates the wipers. The sensor detects how hard the rain is falling and determines how fast to run the wiper motor. The system, which cost Lucas more than 10 man-years of design and development, uses advanced infrared optical technology to detect windshield moisture.

In Europe, many '96 models include Siemens Automotive's engine immobilizer system that deactivates the vehicle's engine control unit and uses a passive transponder to reactivate the unit. All Volkswagen, Opel, Skoda, Subaru and Nissan models in that market will have the system in 1996, as will select Renault vehicles. Mercedes-Benz models will have a different, remote-control infrared Siemens immobilizer. Siemens says engine immobilizers will appear in the U.S. on Big Three 1998 models.