Gingerly, the auto industry is stepping up the push for car features that work by electronic impulses instead of metal pumps, pinions and cylinders.
The motivation is clear: Vehicle technologies lumped together as "X-by-wire" -- brake-by-wire, steer-by-wire, drive-by-wire -- promise to make cars lighter, safer, easier to build and more fuel efficient.
But selling that point has been tough.
While the technology has been advancing for at least 20 years, its progress has been impeded by consumers fearful of runaway cars and luxury owners persnickety about unfamiliar driving sensations. A recent lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corp. successfully used a "ghost in the machine" argument to turn a jury against Toyota's use of throttle-by-wire. The argument questions whether safeguards and regulations can protect a driver from the occurrence of software glitches.
Those concerns have restrained the industry's zeal for X-by-wire.
Powerful global industry factors, such as the mandate for better fuel economy and the competition for emerging markets, are stimulating new interest by automakers in X-by-wire systems. Not least among them is the new industry race for self-driving vehicles, which proponents say is impossible without X-by-wire.
On the very near horizon are advances in electronic braking that will make inattentive drivers safer, electronically controlled gear shift systems that will keep the most inexperienced drivers from stalling their cars, adjustable chassis to compensate for inferior road conditions, and tunable steering systems that give luxury drivers and enthusiasts more control over the driving experience.
"These technologies are gaining traction," reports Robert Beaver, chief engineer for brake maker Continental Teves' North American vehicle dynamics business. "Customers are lining up for them. There's a big movement for new solutions."
Conti and other technology giants have been working for years to move the market on X-by-wire auto systems. In the past few years, the biggest area of growth has been among electric cars and hybrid vehicles, including the Toyota Prius and the Lexus CT 200h, which use a shift-by-wire transmission.
Conti engineers are developing a brake system with the internal name "MKC1" that will reach the market in 2018. The company declines to reveal what vehicles are scheduled to receive it. But it will give Conti customers in Europe and North America smaller, lighter, electronically controlled brakes that do not use a vacuum pump -- a standard building block of traditional mechanical brakes.
"Until now, we've been putting brake-by-wire on hybrids and electrics," Beaver says. "We're going to start putting them into standard gasoline vehicles.
"We're going to see a drastic reduction in the number of parts in the car as we move into wire systems," he adds, referring to X-by-wire concepts in general. "There won't be vacuum pumps anymore. Power steering pumps are going to disappear, and we're going to electric steering."
It's not that removing pumps makes for an inherently better vehicle. It is that automakers desperately want to improve fuel economy on the coming generation of vehicles. And that means ending the standard engineering practice of running various pumps off of engine power, like so many extension chords plugged into a wall socket.
Fewer devices draining power from the engine means better fuel economy.