(Thanks to Ford Media)
In 1994, Grantley Hodge had a straightforward responsibility for the Benetton-Ford Formula One racing team: Keep the cars' Ford Zetec-R V-8 engines running at peak performance throughout every race weekend.
The record books show that in '94 Michael Schumacher drove his Benetton-Ford to eight Grand Prix victories and the Formula One World Championship - a good indication that Hodge did his job well.
Twenty years ago, that job would have involved mechanical adjustments using wrenches, screwdrivers and various instruments, fine-tuning the engine's ignition system and carburetors or fuel injection.
Now, Hodge does his work without ever touching an engine. He does it all with a computer. Since his successful 1994 season, Hodge, a personable Australian, has moved to Dearborn, where he now is in charge of engine control software for both the Formula One and CART racing programs. He works with a group of engineers at a dedicated laboratory near Ford's world headquarters.
The Dearborn engineers design and build Ford racing electronics following the same guidelines used in the development of advanced production components. They also use the same advanced production componentry tooling. In this way, they hone their ability to develop technology that can be applied directly to production equipment.
These days, computers control almost every aspect of an engine's operation. Sensors, which are the computer's eyes and ears, and its sense of smell and touch, keep track of engine performance. If they sense something not quite right, the control computer sends out commands to its "hands" - electro-mechanical actuators that make adjustments to keep the engine running the way it's supposed to. The computer does its work with amazing speed, too; today's Ford EEC-V engine controller is capable of 1.7 million commands every second.
Like any computer, however, the "garbage-in, garbage-out" adage applies. If the computer isn't programmed right, the engine won't run right. That's where Hodge and a few dozen other Ford Electronics engineers come in.
But why? Apart from the glory of helping race teams compete and win, why would Ford spend the resources in equipment and personnel to develop electronic engine controls for racing? After all, present-day Formula One and CART engines have little in common with powerplants for a Taurus, Windstar, Mondeo, Ka or Fiesta.
The truth is, when it comes to electronic controls, they have quite a bit in common. In fact, when a Ford engine control system first appeared on a Formula One race engine 10 years ago, it was an adaptation of Ford's production EEC-IV unit, not a specially developed racing system. Ford engineers believed that would afford greater opportunities to transfer racing-developed technology into production systems.
As it turns out, the transfer process has worked both ways, to everyone's advantage.
When Ford's latest production engine controller, EEC-V, was introduced on selected 1994 models, it already had been thoroughly proven on Ford racing engines.
"We had a system in racing with EEC-V's processing speed five years before it reached production," says Walt Clark, manager, powertrain control modules engineering at Ford Automotive Components Division. "Racing is our benchmark for developing components. A lot of the parts we have were used in racing before they reached production."
One example is the rev limiter used in the controller for the high-performance Taurus SHO engine. This powerplant has a very high rev rate; that is, under full throttle and no load, engine rpm winds up very quickly. "Our production strategy, which we had been using for years, simply would not work," Clark pointed out. "The engine revved up so fast that the controller couldn't catch it before it went beyond the red line."
In the racing world, however, engineers deal with engines that can hit a 17,000-rpm red line in about a quarter of a second. "The trick is to design a strategy that allows you to use all the engine's power - right up to the red line, but not beyond," Clark says. "The system our people worked out will catch an engine revving at 50,000 rpm per second within 200 rpm of the red line. In racing, if you have a bigger cushion than that, you're wasting usable rpm and losing the advantage. Of course, this strategy works just fine on the SHO engine."
In Hodge's place at Cosworth Engineering in England, Bill Davis now leads the team of four engineers charged with programming, testing, calibrating and fitting the electronic engine controls for the Ford Zetec R engines.
Davis wouldn't be racking up the frequent flyer miles he does if it was just a matter of "test it, fit it and forget it." The reality is, in Formula One and CART racing, every race course and each driver requires special power characteristics, so the Ford engineers recalibrate the EEC units at every race to get the most out of their cars.
Necessity being the mother of invention, it was this need to recalibrate control modules at race tracks around the world that inspired Davis's and Hodge's predecessors to develop the Portable Calibration System. At the race track, the PCS is essential to tailor engine performance to the track conditions, weather and driver's needs. It's a laptop computer package that speeds up the process and avoids the necessity of modem links to computers at home base.
This task is comparable to production development engineers calibrating control systems for new vehicles in far-away testing locations, and the racing-developed PCS units have been a boon in production work. Estimates place time savings at several thousand hours, plus the associated expenses. There is also the Data Communications Link, developed in Formula One, that now links production EEC modules to Ford's diagnostic systems in dealership service areas.
Still another racing development now helps technicians and customers after cars are in production, too. That is an integrated circuit called a Flash Erasable Electrically Programmable Read Only Memory chip, or better know by its acronym, Flash EEPROM. Ford engineers pioneered the use of these chips in Formula One racing to even more quickly recalibrate the EEC computer. In production cars, they allow dealership technicians to make emissions or driveability adjustments by quickly recalibrating rather than replacing the EEC module.
Racing has allowed Ford engineers to explore the frontiers of technology. Electronic throttle control with interactive traction control is an example - a system that eliminates the mechanical link between the gas pedal and the engine's throttle.
The driver's foot on the gas pedal sends an electronic signal to the engine controller, which in turn controls throttle opening and closing. The traction control system also works through the engine control module.
"We could put these systems in passengers cars today," says Clark. "The EEC-V controller has the capacity. It just comes down to cost and demand."
A functioning technology transfer operation at Ford has helped put an engine control system into production that's up to any challenge, as well as a system for accelerating development of leading-edge technology that is already probing exciting new products for the future.
"Today's global auto industry is nothing if not tough competition," says Clark. "Racing is one of our best fitness programs. We're ready."