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What are ESP and traction control?

Your guide to what ESP and Traction Control (TC) mean, and what the differences between each are.

Aside from the obvious emergency protection a car gives you with the likes of airbags and seatbelts, do you ever wonder how exactly your car takes care of you?
Safety security has developed a lot over the last few years. Modern safety standards include ESP and traction control, meaning it’s harder than ever to crash your car. Both ESP and traction control are electronic safety systems designed to keep your car from losing steering control and skidding, and these types of technology have become crucial for driver safety in modern cars. By constantly monitoring your steering wheel angle, they ensure that your car’s always heading in the right direction, helping to keep you and your fellow road users as safe as possible.

What is ESP?

Electronic stability programme (ESP) is a driving safety technology designed to keep your car stable and safe while on the road. ESP technology includes traction control (TCS) and anti-lock brakes (ABS) which work on detecting loss of traction while accelerating or braking, which helps to prevent road accidents.
ESP is a generic term that covers a huge array of manufacturer names and acronyms for what is basically the same thing, so if you see different acronyms out there, don’t worry – it’s just different ways of saying the same thing. Examples of this could be Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), or Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), amongst others.

How does ESP work?

Ever taken a corner too fast or hit a patch of ice? Well, ESP is designed to stop skids while you’re on the move, giving you total control of your car by using sensors to detect when you’ve lost grip with the surface. ESP then uses individual brakes at each wheel to compensate, bringing your car back into line. Modern technology means ESP can do this far quicker than any human.
ESP has been mandatory for new cars in the UK since 2011. Some cars feature ESP systems with a Sport mode, which loosens these electronic reins a little to allow more spirited driving without engaging the system. However, the system still intervenes past a certain point. A few vehicles allow ESP to be turned off entirely, but many don’t. Most motorists won’t need to do this on the road, and it’s much safer to leave it on.

ESP warning light

All new cars come with an ESP warning light on the dashboard. If you see the ESP light is on and flashing, then the ESP system is operating. You’ll likely feel more grip on your wheels while the system is on.
If the ESP light is on constantly, without any flickering, then the ESP system has been turned off or isn’t operating properly. If this is the case, you should get it checked by a mechanic as soon as possible.

What is traction control?

Traction control is specifically designed to maintain grip at the driven wheels, which vary depending on whether your car is front-, rear- or all-wheel drive.
Traction control uses the ESP sensors to prevent or at least reduce wheelspin, which happens when the tyre isn’t gripping the road surface as effectively as it should. Wheelspin can prove to be extremely dangerous on the road as it can lead to either understeering (the car not responding fast enough to your steering input) or oversteering (when the back of the car slips out of line – cool on a racetrack, but not so cool on a busy road). It, too, can go by a variety of manufacturer-specific names and can also be turned off in some cars. Again, we wouldn’t recommend doing so on the road.

How exactly does traction control work?

The traction control system senses when you’ve given too much throttle (acceleration) for the tyres to maintain grip on the surface underneath and then automatically adjusts the wheel speed to get that grip back again.
When the anti-lock braking system (ABS) sensors detect that the wheel is spinning, it will trigger a quick cut to the engine’s output which allows the wheel to slow down its rate of spin and regain traction.

How do I know my traction control is working?

If you’ve got a new car, you’re probably not going to feel the difference behind the wheel, as most modern traction control systems are designed to intervene without a hitch. However, older systems may give off the sensation of hesitation when it kicks in.
Either way, the traction control system has a dedicated warning light on your dashboard that will pop up to indicate that all systems are a-go when you start up your car. Pay attention to this warning light - if it doesn’t disappear when the engine is started, you’ll need to get your car checked by a professional ASAP as there’s a fault. Don’t forget to test the ESP and traction control when you’re test driving a used car, and be sure to ask your dealer about these, and any other new features, if you’re in the market for a brand-new car.

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