can you feel the wheel?

Top Technician 2017 winner Karl Weaver is back, and looking at the active wheel speed sensor

Published:  25 May, 2018

I’m pleased to be writing a second article and this time I’ve decided to look at the active wheel speed sensor.
Originally electronic anti-lock braking systems (ABS) used magnetic inductive sensors to measure wheel speed. These are classed as ‘passive’ sensors and are actuated by a rotating toothed ring. The sensor contains a magnetic core w1 vith a fine coil of wire around it. As each tooth passes the sensor it generates an alternating current (AC) analogue signal. The faster the wheel goes, the greater the frequency and the higher the voltage. The wheel speed is determined by the frequency. The main disadvantage of this is the weakness of the signal at low speeds.  

As technology developed and the requirements for safer and more precise anti-lock braking systems vehicle manufactures started to use ‘active’ wheel speed sensors. Although its purpose is the same as its predecessor,  it is able to give an accurate signal at much slower speeds. The sensor reads from a ring of magnets, which are usually incorporated into the seal of the hub bearing. The sensor is supplied with a voltage and returns a direct current (DC) digital signal where speed is determined by the frequency of the switching of the circuit. There are several variations in the way they work and what to expect to see when testing them.

The workshop was presented with a 2010 Seat Ibiza with an intermittent ABS fault. The customer’s complaint was that occasionally the ABS light comes on when driving and doesn’t go out until the car is restarted. At this point it’s important to gather as much information from the customer as possible about when the fault occurs. In this case the customer noted that it seemed to happen more after rain. Without the series of questions we asked the customer they would never have mentioned this and in many cases it can prove to be that vital clue that makes for a faster and successful diagnosis.

After inspecting the vehicle we carried out a full diagnostic scan which revealed one DTC stored in the ABS controller: “00283 – ABS wheel speed sensor; Front left (G47) 012 – Electrical fault in circuit.”

A fault code is seldom a definitive answer on where the fault is. It is the control unit’s best interpretation of the fault which can sometimes be a symptom of something completely separate. It should always be treated as a clue. As technology has progressed, DTCs have become better. Once upon a time the DTC may have just been ‘front left speed sensor’ but now we have sub-codes which enable a better and more useful description: “Front left speed sensor- Circuit open, plausibility, coherence, short to positive, short to ground.” This tells us much more about the nature of the fault. In this case it was referring to the circuit so we know that it’s unlikely to be caused by the magnetic ring or a mechanical fault. It would suggest the cause could be any of the components that make up the circuit including the sensor, the control unit or any of the wiring between these.

Tool of choice
Our typical British weather conditions gave the perfect test conditions and after a 10 minute road test we were able to replicate the fault and the same DTC was stored. Live data confirmed no speed signal for that wheel so we put the vehicle back onto the lift for inspection and this time we were unable to clear the code. The fault was at this point permanent which meant the perfect opportunity for testing. Our tool of choice for this was the oscilloscope. With an intermittent fault that is present it is best to conduct the testing whilst disturbing as little as possible. When touching wiring, particularly with an intermittent fault that only happens occasionally you may easily make the connection good again and mask the fault. So the least intrusive way was to back-probe at the sensor connector.  

From previous experience we had a good idea what to expect. However, as we knew the remaining three wheel speed sensors were fully operational, this gave us the ultimate test reference data. Disturbing this circuit wasn’t an issue so we opted for a break-out lead. When testing the front right speed sensor with the ignition on, we noted battery voltage on one wire and just below 200mV the other. Rotating the wheel gave us a square wave signal on the low voltage wire, switching roughly between 180 and 350mV (See Figure 1).

Now back to the faulty side; Our test showed no power. At this point we now know that either the control unit’s supply to that sensor has failed, the circuit is open or is being shorted to ground. We repeated the test at the control unit plug which showed the same reading so that eliminated an open circuit. Next we disconnected the sensor from the harness to see if it is shorting the supply to ground but still no power. It did however reveal a corroded connection which could well be the fault but why no power?

The connection was cleaned and reconnected, the ignition was cycled and the DTC was cleared. The power returned and the sensor and circuit’s function was confirmed. Due to the condition of the connector and sensor terminals it would be necessary to replace the sensor and splice in a harness repair section. As this sensor was relatively close to the controller we opted to join the section at the ECU harness connector.

Reliable diagnosis
We have to ask though, at this point is it a 100% reliable diagnosis? Just because we have seen a corroded connection and the system is now functioning again. Can we guarantee to the customer that the same fault won’t return? It would have been very easy to carry out the repair, test it and leave it at that but by spending an extra 20 minutes carrying out some additional tests were able illuminate the other components and make some interesting observations about how the control unit monitors the circuit and when it turns the power off. If the fault wasn’t so visually obvious and let’s say there was a semi-broken wire within the harness or a fault within the sensor we could have easily wrongly condemned the control unit due to its loss of sensor power supply. By disconnecting the wiring at either end it is easy to load test it and check for any short to ground.

We carried out some more tests on the other fully functional right-hand side. Within just over a quarter of a second of the sensor being unplugged the power is turned off (See Figure 2) and if the circuit is open or incorrect at the point the ignition is turned on it gives two brief pulses of voltage on the supply side whilst it monitors the current flow and the voltage on the signal wire (See Figure 3).

There are several different ways of testing this type of sensor/circuit arrangement and it often comes down to personal preference or the tools available. The circuit signal could be measured with a very low reading amps clamp. In this case it would need to be able to accurately measure current below 20mA as the signal switches between 7 and 14mA. There are some good ABS sensor simulators on the market that can be connected in place of the sensor to transmit a signal that can be observed via means of live data. If you just wanted to test the circuit without monitoring the signal you could use a decade box provided you know what resistance you require. Or if you have suitable test leads and connectors you could connect the front left wiring to the front right sensor – the ultimate sensor simulator.

Information and test data is easily available from several sources for cars like this but that is not always the case. Measuring and observing duplicate circuits on a vehicle to gather reliable test comparison data can be vital not only for a successful diagnosis but to learn how circuits behave so you’re fully prepared for the next one. I believe they call it ‘CPD.’ Every day really is as school day in this trade!


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  • Spin the wheel 

    I have been asked several times about ABS wheel sensors. Like many other components, the technology is changing. The changes reflect the expansion in integrated chassis dynamics.

    Just imagine how many functions require wheel speed and rotational differential data.

    ABS, dynamic stability, hill start, audio volume, navigation, self park, all wheel drive, active steering assist, electronic handbrake etc. Sharing this data on a high speed can network ensures very accurate vehicle motion dynamics.

    Older variable reluctance sensors (VRS) rely on a coil generating an alternating voltage when rotation occurs. The problem is they are not directional sensitive and cannot report motion at very low speed. Air gaps were critical as they affect signal amplitude. They are often referred to as passive sensors. So, the introduction of digital or active sensors was inevitable.

    How do we tell them apart? Active sensors require a voltage supply from the ABS PCM, with a ground or signal return. They operate with different principles of signal generation; hall, and magneto resistive. Pure hall effect sensors will switch between the supply potential voltage and ground. Magneto resistive sensors operate on the principle of current and voltage change in response to a change in magnetic induction. This change can be introduced in several ways reflected in wheel bearing and sensor design. Smaller sensors with integrated magnetic field rings are now the norm. Developed by NTN at their Annecy facility they are called encoded bearings. A small ring mounted at one end of the bearing carries a series of north south poles. These have now been replaced by dual encoding, two sets of magnetic rings with a unique offset. This enables the abs module to determine direction of rotation.

    Subtle differences
    There are two very subtle differences in the digital outputs. They can be called pull up or pull down. The sensor supply voltage will be slightly lower than battery voltage this is due to the different internal resistance values. However, it will be around 10.5/11.5v.

    The ground or return signal value will vary between 0v or 1.4/1.8v. You could have a sensor or circuit fault; let me try and explain the subtle differences, and how to prove which is which. Remember the golden rule if in doubt compare a wheel circuit that works normally.

    First unplug the sensor and measure both circuits in the loom. With no load applied the supply voltage should jump up to NBV

    Next check the ground circuit if its true ground then it’s a pull-down type and the signal will be on the power line, and may only be around 200mv

    If a small voltage exists then it’s a pull up type and the signal will be on this wire not the supply. The digital signal will be very small when the wheel rotates. It could be small around 200/400mv, or as high as 0.5/1.8v, depending on the manufacturer variant

    Common sense would dictate the serial route is easiest, however how would you determine an intermittent fault? It could be a faulty sensor, faulty encoder, or a circuit error. The only way is using a scope. Should we measure voltage or current though? Both change in the circuit. Unless you have a very special current clamp, go for voltage and select a AC coupling.

    The specific question I am often asked is current measurement, well I can tell you in a pull-down circuit its around 7-15 ma with a 400mv voltage change. The pull up type will produce around 6/13ma with 0.2/0.35mv.     However, these voltage values can vary due to the value of the two parallel internal sensor resistors these are normally 1.4k ohms, with a much higher resistor in the meg ohm range, within the ABS pcm.

    I hope this helps. The pico image was taken from a VW Golf 1.4 TSI. The easy bit is replacing the wheel sensors. Ever since metal housings were replaced with plastic they never corrode in the housings
    do they…?

  • Issues of rotation 

    I received a phone call from another garage: 'We've seen you in the Top Technician magazine and are wondering if you would be interested in looking at an ABS fault for us?' The call went along the usual lines, can the symptoms be recreated? What is the repair history? The vehicle was booked in for me to take a look.

    The car in question was a 2011 Honda
    CR-V, which had been taken as a trade in at a local garage, the fault only occurred after around 50-70 miles of driving, at which point the dash lights up with various warning lights. The vehicle had been prepped and sold to its new owner unaware a fault was present.

    After only a few days the fault occurred and the vehicle returned to the garage. They had scan checked the vehicle and the fault code ‘14-1- Left Front Wheel Speed Sensor Failure’ was retrieved. On their visual inspection, it was obvious a new ABS sensor had already been fitted to the N/S/F and clearly not fixed the fault. Was this the reason the vehicle had been traded in? They fitted another ABS sensor to the N/S/F and an extended road test was carried out. The fault reoccurred. This is when I received the phone call; the garage was now suspecting a control unit fault.
    My first job was to carry out a visual inspection for anything that was obviously wrong and had possibly been over looked: correct tyre sizes, tyre pressures, tyre tread and excessive wheel bearing play. All appeared ok. The ABS sensors fitted to this vehicle are termed 'Active' meaning they have integrated electronic and are supplied with a voltage from the ABS control unit to operate. The pulse wheel is integrated into the wheel bearing, which on this vehicle makes it not possible to carry out a visual inspection without stripping the hub.

    Endurance testing
    With the vehicle scan checked, all codes recorded and cleared, it was time for the road test. Viewing the live data from all the sensors, they were showing the correct wheel speed readings with no error visible on the N/S/F. The road test was always going to be a long one, fortunately at around 30 miles, the dash lit up with the ABS light and lights for other associated systems; the fault had occurred. On returning to the workshop, the vehicle was rescanned, fault code '14-4 - Left Front Wheel Speed Sensor Failure’ was again present. Again using the live data the sensor was still showing the wheel speed the same as the other three, so whatever was causing the fault was either occurring intermittently or there was not enough detail in the scan tool live data graph display to see the fault. It was time to test the wiring and the sensor output signal for any clues.
    Using the oscilloscope, the voltage supply and the ground wire were tested and were good at the time of test. I connected the test lead to the power supply wire and using the AC voltage set to 1V revealed the sensors square wave signal. Then rotating the wheel by hand and comparing the sensors output to one of the other ABS Sensors, again all appeared to be fine. A closer look at the signal was required, zooming in on the signal capture to reveal more detail; it became easier to see something was not quite right with the signal generated by the sensor when the wheel was rotated. With the voltage of the signal remaining constant, a good earth wire and the wheel rotated at a constant speed the signal width became smaller, effectively reporting a faster speed at that instant, not consistent with the actual rotational speed of the wheel. It was difficult to see the error, zooming out of the capture to show more time across the screen it could be seen that this appeared in the signal at regular intervals, although not visible all the time because it was such a slight difference. Using the cursors to measure between the irregular output and counting the oscillations, it was clear that it occurred at exactly the same interval every time. It had to be a physical fault on the pulse wheel.
    This meant a new wheel bearing was required. The vehicle was returned to the garage as they wanted to complete the repair, a new wheel bearing was fitted and extended road testing confirmed the vehicle was now fixed.

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