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Tech Talk

Part 2 of this series discussed the physical layouts of typical ABS systems and listed the main components/assemblies and their tasks. What follows describes the function and operating principles of these components and the system as a whole.

Wheel speed sensors
The wheel speed sensors are probably the most important components in an anti-lock braking system, as everything the system does revolves around them (excuse the pun!)

(weaker), making it alternately strong and weak. This change in strength changes the voltage generated in the sensor coil. A/C Voltage Waveform as seen on an Oscilloscope

Note: some recent wheel speed sensors produce a digital signal. This type of signal often needs less processing power in the ECU as it requires no conversion. When the decision to intervene in the braking process has been made, the ECU takes electrical control of solenoid valves fitted in the hydraulic brake lines, overriding the driver’s demands on the brake pedal. These valves are normally located within the actuator assembly.

The majority of ABS sensors detect wheel speed using an electrical process known as “inductance” . These inductive sensors are effectively small electrical generators, operating in a similar fashion to an alternator. A voltage is generated in a wire when a magnetic field is moved or changed in strength whilst in close proximity to the wire.

The sensor consists of a sealed casing containing a permanent magnet and a coil of wire, the ends of which (output signal) are connected to the ABS ECU. The sensor is located in a bracket in close proximity to a sensor rotor mounted on a driveshaft, hub, or final drive crown wheel; in fact, anything that rotates at a speed proportionate to the wheel speed will suffice. The sensor rotor is a series of teeth (30 to 50 is the norm), which influence the magnetic field surrounding the tip of the sensor. The changing distance between the peaks and troughs of the sensor rotor teeth and the sensor influences the magnetic field - the magnetic field is influenced in a positive way by the metal construction of the rotor tooth (stronger) and in a negative way by the air in between the teeth
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The picture above shows this effect. It can be seen in this example that the sensor rotor has only 4 teeth – this configuration actually represents an engine position sensor whose operating principle is identical to that of an ABS wheel speed sensor. In the diagram it can be seen that in the ‘yellow’ position the voltage generated is zero. This is because the sensor rotor tooth is as physically near to the sensor as is possible so the magnetic field strength has reached a maximum value. If it is at a maximum, it is not changing in strength and therefore no voltage is produced. The same rule applies in the ‘black’ position – the magnetic field strength is at its weakest and therefore not changing in strength – no voltage generated.

Actuator/modulator assembly
The actuator assembly consists mainly of a series of electrically operated solenoid valves to control the hydraulic pressure within the brake lines. In some versions, each hydraulic circuit uses solenoid valves that can be controlled in any one of three positions. Each valve assembly has two ball valves separated by a spring within a cylinder and the two valves can move semiindependently. The upper valve opens/closes the port from the master cylinder and the lower valve opens/closes the port to the wheel cylinder, as well as a port to a reservoir (see diagram below). During normal braking the pressure on the pedal is increased by the driver. The solenoid valve is inactive and brake fluid is forced past the upper ball valve into the wheel cylinders/callipers. This is known as the pressure increase phase.

When the ABS ECU receives a sensor signal, it uses it to determine individual wheel speed. When more than one wheel speed sensor signal is available to the ECU it can compare the speeds to decide if one or more wheels are in danger of locking up, causing skidding. The ECU has to convert the A/C analogue signal into a digital signal, because computers can only work with digital information in order to compare the wheel speeds with programmed values and other signals (brake switch etc.). This process allows the ECU to make decisions about the relative speeds of the road wheels.

Solenoid Valve

If the if the driver continues to increase the pressure on the brake pedal, eventually one or more of the wheels will be at risk of

locking. The ECU will sense that a wheel is rotating much slower than it should be at that particular road speed and intervene. A low current signal is sent to the solenoid valve of the slow wheel, moving the valve upwards to block the hydraulic pipe from the master cylinder. The pressure produced up to this point at the wheel brake is maintained (held) at that level. The driver now has little further influence on the brake pressure, almost regardless of how hard the pedal is pressed. The pump runs in preparation for the next part of the sequence (note that the pump is housed in the modulator assembly itself). In this condition, the wheel speed should be maintained at a point just before the onset of skidding, proportionate to vehicle speed, so providing maximum deceleration. This is the pressure hold phase, illustrated below.

Q A Rover 75 2-litre 2001 diesel broke down and refused to restart . We can’t get any fault codes out of the system as it refuses to communicate. It will start briefly using Easy Start into the air intake, so we know the cause is not associated with the engine mechanically. A Have a look at the ECU. A common fault with the Rover is that the ECU gets water damaged (it’s located under the rear bulkhead beneath the windscreen). The drain hole in the housing tends to get blocked. Remove the ECU, take off the outer case and rinse the circuit board using distilled or deionised water and leave to dry. If this doesn’t fix the problem, it may be necesssary to have the ECU repaired by a specialist, but from my experience the success rate is not good. Otherwise it’s a case of getting a new one - used ones are scarce due to the common nature of the fault. Q We’re baffled by an emissions problem on a Citroen Xantia 1.8 16 valve 1997. It will run with normal emissions for the first 10 minutes from a cold start, but the longer it is left to run the more the CO2 rises – it reaches over 2.0% at idle, though at 3K it comes down to normal – below 0.10 %. The lambda sensor and coolant temperature sensor have been changed with no improvement. A This sounds like an inlet air leak problem. The Xantia uses a Map sensor combined with a throttle potentiometer to determine the amount of air being used by the engine. If there is an air leak into the inlet system after the throttle butterfly, then the manifold vacuum will drop causing the calculated air result from the Map sensor and throttle pot signals to be erroneously high. Extra fuel is then injected to go with the extra air calculation. Finding air leaks is always tricky and the best approach is to use a combination of techniques. Ultrasonic detectors are good (air leaks that go sonic

illustrated above. Depending on how much the wheel speeds up during the pressure release phase, the ECU reverts to the earlier pressure hold or increase phase. Should the wheel attempt to lock again, the cycle is repeated. This can occur many times per second and the resulting high frequency pressure variations are usually felt at the brake pedal as vibration, in some cases causing the inexperienced driver to remove their foot from the pedal with disastrous consequences!

In this article we have seen how the wheel speed sensors actually generate signals and how the three-position solenoid valve type ABS modulator controls hydraulic braking pressure. We will be going on to describe another common type of actuator in the next article. If you would like to study antilock braking systems in more detail we would be delighted to provide you with a place on one of our technical courses. Please see details below on how to contact us. ProAuto Limited are an automotive technical training company based in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Our core business is design and delivery of technical training to the automotive industry, which includes vehicle manufacturers, component manufacturers, diagnostic equipment manufacturers and independent garages. We run courses from numerous select venues nationally, so a course is never too far away. For further details you can visit our website at, email us at, or telephone 01743 709679.

Unfortunately, a number of factors may still cause the wheel to slow excessively and skid. Variations in road surface and brake lining grip levels, surface irregularities, loads during cornering and changes in pressure applied by the driver all conspire to allow the wheel to lock, causing vehicle instability. Further measures must be taken to prevent this effect. Should the ECU detect that the wheel is slowing too much, a high current signal is sent to the solenoid valve in the affected wheel’s hydraulic circuit. The higher current lifts the lower ball valve off its seat against spring pressure, allowing fluid to flow from the wheel cylinder into the reservoir (note that the reservoir is also housed within the modulator). The release of brake pressure allows the wheel to speed up again, regaining grip. The pump is running to return fluid to the master cylinder, pushing against the driver input and possibly causing the pedal to rise slightly. This is the pressure reduction phase,

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