What is ESC? Your Car’s Inner Control Freak Explained

what is ESC
Nic Redhead, Flickr.com
ESC helps avoid wicked skids like this one.

What Is ESC?

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

ESC 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. It’s possible for either to occur in dry conditions as well.

  • 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. You turn your steering wheel and road conditions cause your tires to turn too sharply. This can result in a spinout.

Background

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.

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How Does ESC Work?

ESC uses computerized technology that constantly monitors the direction of the tires and the movement of the steering wheel. Most drivers are unaware that their tires are losing traction until it’s too late to make manual corrections, so ESC steps in. 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.

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

Now that you know that you understand ESC, don’t take it as an invitation to drive recklessly. ESC doesn’t enhance your car’s ability to take corners quickly. It also doesn’t always work under severe conditions. You should always practice safe driving techniques, especially if the road is wet.

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