Rallying without a steering column
Rally drivers are deemed to be the decathletes in motorsport. Be it grueling gravel roads, extreme heat, snow and ice, perfectly flat asphalt or spectacular jumps, drivers and cars engaged in rallying have to deliver top performance in harsh and constantly changing conditions. In this environment, Space Drive steer-by-wire technology from Schaeffler has been proving itself in competition since 2021. Space Drive does not require any mechanical connection between the steering unit and steering box. The signals from the steering system are recognized by sensors and electronically transmitted to the steering box.
Following the deployment of steer-by-wire technology in GT3 circuit racing – in the DTM, among other events – tests are now being run in rallying. Armin Schwarz, two-time German Rally Champion in 1987 and 1988 and the last German to have won a round in the World Rally Championship (WRC), oversees the project in which seasoned rally drivers – including former World Rally Champion Marcus Grönholm – had the chance to test the system in order to advance the fine-tuning work of the steering system.
“Along with notable drivers from the WRC, it’s also interesting to see my son Fabio in this car because unlike us seasoned drivers he brings a lot of experience from the simulator to this project,” says Armin Schwarz. At the age of 18, Schwarz’s son is one of the most talented young German drivers. At the age of 14, he contested his first rally in Latvia and at the age of 17, Schwarz junior was the youngest driver to win a rally in Germany. Among other cars this season he’s now even driving a Ford Fiesta Rally 2 with Space Drive and a national homologation in the competitions of the German Rally Championship.
New opportunities in rallying
How does steer-by-wire feel? Fabio Schwarz responds that “The advantage over a conventional steering system is that you only feel what you want to feel. You can adjust the system to the driving style and preferences of any driver and program various steering ratios. And, for example, easily convert it from right-hand to left-hand drive. The system opens up endless possibilities.”
“You can adjust the system to the driving style and preferences of any driver. It opens up endless possibilities.”Young rally talent Fabio Schwarz
The impacts from deep ruts in the road that are transmitted to a rally driver’s arms via the steering systems can be filtered out by the electronic steering system according to the driver’s preferences as well. “You can steer a lot more calmly because there’s no more kickback. That generally makes the car a lot calmer.” In situations of aquaplaning – in the event that it should rain – the youngster expects advantages as well.
Plus, the conditions during a rally are clearly more prone to change than in circuit racing. Schwarz senior knows that “Sometimes loose stones are hurtled onto the road and in some rallies the surface is swept clean. Looking at the truly rough rallies in the World Rally Championship you can tell that problems in the steering mechanism keep cropping up. Steer-by-wire provides advantages in that regard as well because fewer mechanical components mean fewer things that can break.”
“Fewer mechanical components mean fewer things that can break.”Rally legend Armin Schwarz
The tests and the first rally entries were promising. “The system works excellently,” says the rally professional, who is now 59 years old. “We completed more than 10,000 kilometers – without any problems. We were particularly fascinated by a test on ice with spikes, where the Space Drive responded faster than conventional steering.”
Space Drive from Schaeffler ByWire is a digital steering system for production vehicles, prototypes, development mules, agricultural machines, industrial vehicles or unmanned ground vehicles.
On the race track, the system has been approved by the German Motorsport Association (DMSB) since 2019 and has been tested in some GT3 cars in the GTC Race and DTM racing series.
Space Drive has its origins in mobility applications for disabled people and today is deemed one of the key technologies for automated and autonomous driving.
Targeting the World Rally Championship
Currently, a rallying homologation for the innovative steering system is being pursued. “Our goal, clearly, is the deployment of Space Drive in a vehicle of the top category Rally1,” says Schwarz and draws a comparison, “In aviation it was also assumed for a long time that steel cables were needed for guiding the empennage. That has long become obsolete. Electronic systems operate with higher precision and speed. By the same token, steering columns could soon be eliminated in automobiles thanks to steer-by-wire.” The deployment of Space Drive in rallying and the experience and data gained in the process accelerate this development. “Almost incidentally, driving without a steering column has a major safety effect. When a steering column is no longer installed, a steering column can no longer intrude into the cabin.”