FOX's Advanced Product Group is free to develop any concept that it believes will have merit within the various branches of FOX's suspension divisions. Three years ago, APG went to work on an electronic suspension control system. FOX's cycling division already had the iCD electronic remote lockout (now called iRD) in production at the time, so they were no stranger to the concept of mixing batteries and buttons with shim stacks and hydraulic fluid. APG’s proposal, however, was the real deal: an automated suspension system capable of reading the terrain and attenuating the compression damping of both the fork and shock to optimize pedaling without interfering with the bike’s bump-leveling and traction performance. It’s called “Live Valve” and I was the first outsider that FOX allowed to ride it.
“Blah blah fork mmmm blah Blah mmmm shock blah blah mmmm, suspension….” We’ve all heard those words before – so often that most readers skim over any text that mentions smooth suspension and firm pedaling in the same sentence. If you are as hardened to hype as I have become, I am sure that your Elvis had left the building half way through the first paragraph. But, you might want to pay attention to this report, because the APG group nailed it. Even if you are a hater of all things electric on a mountain bike, you will be hard pressed to come away from a trail ride on a Live Valve equipped bike with a negative comment – and FOX is still in the development stages with it.
What is Live Valve?
| FOX is developing an electronic suspension system that instantly changes suspension modes based on terrain. It continuously maximizes pedaling efficiency and traction. The system switches to the most favorable mode automatically, ALL THE TIME. It can do what a human and an adjustment lever cannot do. FOX Press Release|
The heart of Live Valve is a low-speed compression damping valve that is controlled by a magnetic solenoid. The damping system has two positions: open and firm. The solenoid opens and closes a bypass circuit which can toggle the shock between either option in five milliseconds (.005 seconds). For comparison, a human eye-blink requires 300 milliseconds. FOX's solenoid uses very little power and it operates silently, unlike present electronic controls, which use motor-drives. The Live Valve module is the same interchangeable part for both the fork and shock, and it incorporates a mechanical low-speed compression adjustment so that the suspension can be tuned separately via an Allen key when it is in the open option.
Everet Ericksen, APB’s Engineering Manager was quick to point out that Live Valve is much more than a simple low-speed bypass circuit. Low speed compression is controlled by a more sophisticated and sensitive washer-stack, which can respond to a wider range of shaft speeds and bump amplitudes. The bypass circuit operates a servo piston that puts pressure on the valve stack to increase compression forces. This allows FOX to use a very small magnetic solenoid to control powerful hydraulic forces inside the suspension – and is also why Live Valve can respond with such astounding quickness
How Live Valve WorksAcceleration sensors:
According to FOX, these are the basic functions of Live Valve:
• System selects between firm and soft damping; Two positions
• Suspension is normally firm
• When a bump is sensed by an accelerometer, suspension switches to soft mode and starts a timer
• If another bump is sensed before timer expires, system resets timer
• If timer expires and no more bumps encountered then it switches back to firm
• If accelerometer detects zero gravity for more than 25 milliseconds, then it goes into Freefall and opens suspension
• Front accelerometer opens the fork and shock; rear accelerometer opens the shock
Live Valve is controlled using accelerometers, one on the fork lowers and one on the swingarm near the rear axle that sense when the wheels contact a bump. The system defaults to firm until one of the accelerometers senses an impact (seven G in the normal setting). Because the wheel sensors are on the un-sprung side of the suspension, they sense the impact and unlock the compression damping before the rider can feel the bump. As mentioned, after the suspension is activated, a timer holds it open in anticipation of a second impact, if not, Live Valve returns to firm. The timer ensures that the suspension feels seamless over braking bumps or rocky, rooted terrain.At present, accelerometers glued to the left chainstay and lower fork leg sense impacts. FOX may move it to the fork's arch.Threshold adjustments:
Presently, there are eight levels of sensitivity built into the Live Valve system, which can be selected by cycling the mode button on the control module. Changing the system’s sensitivity increases or decreases the G-forces required to open the suspension. Select “one” and the suspension will be open most of the time. Select “eight” and the system will remain firm most of the time. The quickness of the Live Valve’s electronics, however, can maintain pedaling firmness throughout all eight levels to the degree that there is only a slight degradation in pedaling feel between the hardest and softest suspension options. Most riders will set Live Valve to the middle position, where it operates seamlessly, and then forget about it.Dual action:
Because the fork does most of the work, FOX programs Live Valve to open both the fork and shock when the front wheel sees an impact, so the shock is ready to receive the blow a moment after the fork does, and the chassis remains level. If the rear wheel contacts a bump separately, its accelerometer signals the shock to open separately. When either the fork or shock sense weightlessness, they automatically open, so that the suspension is cocked and ready to soften a drop or jump.Dedicated shock:
Presently, the Live Valve is encapsulated in an aluminum can that looks like a second reservoir attached to a FOX Float X shock. There was no talk about how FOX was going to incorporate the Live Valve into a standard in-line type Float shock. As it stands, the system requires the dedicated reservoir-style shock and, admittedly, with a reservoir on either side of the shock body, the Live Valve damper may not fit some frame configurations.
The Live valve will drop into any of FOX's 36, 34 and 32-millimeter Float forks, however, which means that the team has solved half of the problem. As mentioned, the Live Valve module is the same part for both the fork and shock, and that should make servicing and/or replacing the module an easy transaction for customers in need. Long lasting battery:
Live Valve’s lithium Ion battery is the same type and voltage as Shimano’s Di2 system. The FOX battery module is lighter, and while the Di2 battery can be concealed inside the frame, Live Valve’s module is external at present, because it contains mode controls and the on-off switch. FOX engineers say that the Live Valve solenoid requires very little amperage to operate and when not active, the system shuts down and goes into “sleep mode” until the bike is used again. Reportedly, Live Valve’s battery can run over 25 hours of actual riding time, depending upon which of the eight possible sensitivity settings you have chosen to ride in. Isn’t Live Valve Just a Copy of Lapierre’s Ei system?
Live Valve and Ei share some basic functions. Using the fork to signal the shock has been successfully proven by Lapierre’s Ei system, which relies upon an accelerometer on the fork slider exclusively to operate the shock. Ei’s low-speed compression valve, however, cannot be used to control the Lapierre’s fork, because the valve is controlled by an electric motor that doesn’t react quickly enough. Ei needs the lag time between when the fork and shock impact the same bump to get the shock open.Lapierre's Ei Auto system uses bumps sensed by an accelerometer on the fork to trigger the shock to switch from locked to open.
Conversely, FOX's Live Valve is quick enough to operate the fork in real time. Also, Lapierre’s Ei system senses crank RPM and opens the shock when the rider is coasting. FOX's Live Valve doesn’t need a cadence sensor, because it relies on its quick reaction time to keep the suspension working. Both systems use accelerometers placed on the un-sprung side of the frame to determine when the bike is weightless. In that situation, Ei opens the shock only, while Live Valve opens both the shock and fork.The Four-Wheel Version
Live Valve was developed in house by FOX's Advanced Product Group, including the electronic components (with some help from friends in nearby Silicon Valley) – and it is not exclusively a cycling product. FOX's motorsports wing has also been developing Live Valve for high-performance side-by-side UTVs. We had the chance to drive a Live Valve equipped UTV on FOX's test track in Scotts Valley and, while we can’t name names, we can say that the car is going to be a game-changer in that marketplace.
Live Valve stabilizes the car’s ride height and keeps it level while the suspension is pounding over bumps. It also levels the car while braking, steering, or accelerating, but its most important benefit is that Live Valve can eliminate body roll without adversely affecting the car’s suspension action. Push a button and the increase in its cornering ability is laughably better. With Live Valve, the UTV’s suspension and anti-roll devices can be set softer, so by switching Live Valve off or on, the same vehicle can be used for rock crawling, where each corner of the car must operate independently, or high-speed desert racing, where the car must absolutely maintain ride height and stability.
| The Kona could be pedaled efficiently from a variety of positions over the chassis - standing, seated, fore, or aft - and with each thrust, the bike would squirt forward without the persistent mush that we have learned to accept from this genre.|
FOX chose a Kona Process to showcase its Live Valve system, because the 134-millimeter-travel Kona’s suspension performance is biased more towards descending and technical handling than it favors pedaling performance. It must be noted that Live Valve is positioned as a "probable" 2017 release, and it is still in the development stages. Presently, ts wires are external, its accelerometers are glued onto the frame and fork, and the first-gen operating module is sure to be slimmed down as FOX nears serial production. FOX says that production wiring will be internal and that the team is presently evaluating Live Valve’s range of adjustment, but functionally, the system is very close to how it will perform in its final form.Initial setup:
When Live Valve is switched off, it defaults to "open," so setting up the Kona was the same as doing so with a conventional shock and fork. After you have properly tuned your fork and shock, switch on Live Valve, select your bump-threshold option and go ride. The Live Valve module has a low-speed compression feature controlled by an Allen screw and, like the solenoid, it also activates the servo piston that bears down on the compression shim stack. That means small adjustments will make a big difference in the damping forces. I had FOX's suspension guys set the bike up for me to establish a base line, which worked out to 25-percent sag for the fork and 30-percent for the shock, with the rebound set slightly on the quick side of the spectrum.How threshold settings work:
The eight bump threshold options alter the point at which the suspension is asked to open up. Live Valve is presently optimized to open the suspension when the accelerometers see an impact greater than seven G in the number four setting. Raising or lowering the bump threshold simply changes the G-forces required to open the shock or fork. Pushing the threshold button once on the control module causes an LED to flash the number you had previously selected: four flashes means level four. After the report you can then push the button from one to eight times in succession to reset the threshold. Because Live Valve has a timer, lower threshold settings will naturally keep the suspension open for longer time intervals. Game on:
FOX arranged a short lap in the coastal redwoods near Santa Cruz that had all the basic trail challenges: braking bumps, a punchy hill-climb, some small jumps, a twisty flow section, and the requisite smattering of rocks and roots. The idea was to first burn a couple of laps with Live Valve turned off. We would then switch it on and ride the following rotations to evaluate the suspension’s performance at bump-sensor threshold settings between one and eight.How it feels:
Live Valve is almost completely transparent and brilliantly effective. Set at four or five, in the middle of the bump-sensor range, it transformed the Kona Process from a reasonably good climber, into a surprisingly good one. Without climbing aids, long-travel trail bikes drag their butts uphill as the rider’s weight transfers to the softly-sprung rear suspension. Live Valve’s persistent low-speed compression boost keeps the chassis riding level and, while it is stabilizing the bike’s ride height, Live Valve also produces a wonderfully firm feel at the pedals. The Kona could be pedaled efficiently from a variety of positions over the chassis - standing, seated, fore, or aft – and with each thrust, the bike would squirt forward without the persistent mush that we have learned to accept from this genre.
At this point, you may be thinking: “No big deal there. I can get the same results by flipping the pedal platform lever of any shock and fork.”
Of course, any suspension equipped with a manual low-speed compression booster can also stabilize the bike’s ride height and produce a firm feel under power, but all that firmness comes at the expense of a harsh-riding bike. For that reason, manual platform damping thresholds are set lower than optimum, as a compromise between pedaling effectiveness and emergency suspension action.
Suspension action: The beauty of the Kona Process is its balanced and supple feeling suspension, and Live Valve frees that suspension to smooth both the ups and downs without robbing a hint of its new-found pedaling performance. In fact, because Live Valve can open the suspension as it senses bumps, its pedal platform can be set to a much higher threshold than a manual system.
So, there I was, out of the saddle, riding up a climb across nested rocks and redwood roots, and the Process is just cruising through the mess as if the obstacles were plush toys. The advantage of Live Valve is less in its crisp acceleration and pedal feel as it is in its ability to keep the suspension working. Every bump event that bounces the bike upwards converts forward momentum into wasted upward acceleration. The short version is that the Kona was faster everywhere on the course with Live Valve switched on.
Thresholds: Riding the system in bump threshold settings from one to six seemed to deliver a supple ride, and as far as pedaling efficiency goes, it was a very similar feel under power, with very little drop-off at the lowest thresholds. Above six, the suspension’s small-bump performance began to become increasingly harsh until at eight, the Kona’s low-amplitude harshness felt like a 100-millimeter racing bike. At pace, when Live Valve kept the Kona’s suspension open much of the time, the harshness could only be sensed in the highest two options. At six or below, the transitions between firm and open were seamless.
New ways of thinking: That said, Live Valve does not change your pre-set suspension setup. If you pump your air springs to their bursting points and run your low-speed compression adjustment in almost all the way, when Live Valve opens up your fork and shock, it will ride just as harshly as you set it up in the first place. To take full advantage of FOX's electronic controls, one needs to separate the bike’s suspension action from its pedaling performance.
| I found that I could use softer spring settings. Live Valve automatically maintained the bike at my chosen ride height, so there seemed to be more suspension travel available to handle terrain.|
Live Valve allows you to tune the fork and shock for the ride ahead without any consideration for pedaling efficiency. In my case, that meant my Kona could be tuned for descending, with softer shock and slightly firmer fork settings. I could enjoy the downs as if I was shuttling gravity runs because I could depend upon Live Valve to sort out the Process’s pedaling action when the fun ended and the ascents began. I found that I could use softer spring settings. Live Valve automatically maintained the bike at my chosen ride height, so there seemed to be more suspension travel available to handle terrain.Possible downsides:
The obvious issue with adding a battery powered system to your suspension is that a dead battery could be game over. FOX says that Live Valve requires so little power to operate that its time between charges is two to three times greater than Shimano’s long-running Di2 drivetrain. If the Live Valve’s lights do go dim, the system is programmed to warn the rider withan amber light and then default to "open," so your ride home will not favor the climbs. If you break a wire, or damage a module, Live Valve will remain where it was at the time, so you have a fifty-fifty chance; firm or soft.
As mentioned, Live Valve can be fitted to most any FOX 34 fork at present, but the shock must be a dedicated design. That, and because the present Live Valve reservoir is a bulky protuberance, we expect that Live Valve will only be available as an OEM product until FOX gets its fitment issues sorted.
Maintenance and replacement should not be a burning issue, because the actual valve module is the same part for both fork and shock – so Live Valve essentially has two parts: the control module and the valve module. We imagine a scenario where FOX simply swaps out the suspect module in a warranty situation, so returning the bike to action would be plug and play, more or less.
Finally, Shimano and FOX may have teamed up on its iCD system (the FOX iCD remote lockout plugs into and uses the same e-Tube wiring and battery as Shimano Di2), but at present, Shimano and Fox are still negotiating Live Valve, presumably, because Shimano may have reservations that a second battery draw to compromise the burn time of its Di2 components. In a wose case situation, Di2, riders who want electric shifting and electric suspension controls will need to keep and charge two batteries on one bike – which no doubt will seem foolish and wasteful to most. We anticipate the two will reach an accord, otherwise, it will become an either/or situation between Shimano and FOX, and if I had to choose today, I’d pick FOX.First Impression:
|Bottom line is that Live Valve does exactly what FOX advertised it would - it allows the bike to be pedaled firmly and efficiently while at the same time, it uncouples the suspension to operate at its highest performance level. Many will argue that batteries have no place on a mountain bike's suspension, but Live Valve's straight up performance will silence most naysayers after one ride. The ramifications of Live Valve, however, reach much further into the sport than its ability to deliver riders the two most important components of off road cycling at the same time. Live Valve has the potential to uncouple suspension kinematics from pedaling dynamics. In short: by adding Live Valve, mountain bike designers can then optimize the suspension without compromising its kinematics in order to boost pedaling firmness. Considering that every popular suspension at present is a compromise between pedaling and acceleration, FOX's Live Valve may inadvertently become a revolutionary tool for next-gen frame designers. Only time will tell. - RC|
View more Live Valve images in the First Look Gallery