The What, How & Why of ESC, Your Car’s Inner Control Freak

Electronic Stability Control - Extreme
Nic Redhead,
ESC helps avoid wicked skids like this one.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is a technology that goes by a variety of different names, depending on the manufacturer. Ford owners know it as AdvanceTrac. GM drivers will likely be more familiar with the term Stabilitrak, which they cleverly refer to as the car’s control freak. Some call it Electronic Stability Control (or ESP, “for electronic stability programme” – we use ESC & ESP interchangeably; they refer to the same technology).

Whatever you call it, it’s an essential technology that’s been around since the mid-90s, courtesy of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Between 2008-2010, an estimated 2,000 lives were saved due to ESC, so the NHTSA mandated that the technology be required for all passenger vehicles in the United States by 2012.

What Is It?

In short, Electronic Stability Control detects if your car is skidding and kicks in a handful of automatic controls to help you regain control.

ESP is usually activated in the event of two potentially life-threatening circumstances: understeer and oversteer. Both understeer and oversteer typically take place when the road is wet, but can still occur in dry conditions.

  • Understeer occurs when you turn your steering wheel to aim in a certain direction, but the car stays on its own path because of a loss of traction.
  • Oversteer, as you might imagine, is the exact opposite – when you turn your steering wheel and road conditions cause your tires to turn sharply – and can result in a spinout.
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How Does ESC Work?

Because most drivers are unaware that their tires are losing traction until it’s too late to make manual corrections, ESC uses computerized technology that constantly monitors the direction of the tires and the movement of the steering wheel. If the car’s ESC sensor notices any discrepancies between the intended direction and the movement of the car’s wheels, it deploys braking on certain wheels to slow a vehicle down and correct its direction before a wipeout occurs.

Why: The Effectiveness of ESC

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), ESC was shown to cut the risk of rollover by 70 percent. Even though rollover occurs in fewer than three percent of all reported accidents, they’re the most deadly – rollovers account for more than 30 percent of all car accident deaths.

Don’t Abuse It

It’s important to remember that just because your car has Electronic Stability Control, this isn’t an invitation for you to drive recklessly. ESC doesn’t enhance your car’s ability to take corners quickly, and under severe conditions may not always work. You should always practice safe driving techniques, especially under wet road conditions.

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