Back in the dark ages of the 1970s, automobile engineers in white coats, black rubber gloves, and goggles with dangling temple straps created anti-lock brake systems, or ABS, in deep, gloomy German cellars. The necessity to pump the brakes was abolished by a variety of sensors, computers, and technological wizardry. Once these sensors were installed, it was simple to make them prevent the tires from chirping, burning, and slipping during acceleration as well. By 1985, scientists of sane mind had developed traction control devices.
Now, traction control is generally available since it utilizes the vehicle’s antilock braking system (ABS), which was mandated for all 2012 models sold in the United States.
- Electronic Traction Control or Traction Control: ETC or TC
- Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)
- Dynamic Traction Control (DTC)
- Electrical Stability Program (ESP)
Where the Rubber Meets the Road … and the Electronic Sensors
The scientists who developed the initial traction control devices were not wholly insane. In reality, they were presumably tediously task-focused and working to fulfill performance targets in a beautiful corporate facility with vacation time and benefits, but without any black rubber gloves. That’s acceptable, engineers. Be as such. While reading about how traction control operates, readers must provide their own maniacal laughter.
Hence, if you live in the twenty-first century, your vehicle has a computer. It also indicates that your vehicle likely has a drive-by-wire system, which eliminates the mechanical link between the gas pedal and the throttle mechanism. Instead, depressing the accelerator pedal sends an electronic signal to the throttle, accelerating the vehicle. And having ABS entails having speed sensors at each wheel to detect how fast the wheel is turning; the computer compares all four wheel speeds to determine if one of them is not doing its function. In the instance of ABS, it is preventing one wheel from locking up and throwing the vehicle into a ditch. With traction control, the same electronics ensure that all of the wheels are turning at the same rate relative to the road. It will determine if a wheel is slipping — that is, if it is spinning faster than the other wheels, erratically. A cackle could work here, if desired.
The options available to the vehicle’s computer rely on how it was configured and the prevailing circumstances. Frequently, the computer will apply the brakes slightly to slow down the out-of-control tire until the tread can grip the road and prevent skidding. If additional measures are required, traction control can restrict engine power and torque until the tire gains traction. A cackle may not be acceptable here.
When It Works … and When It Doesn’t
What must you do to make this system function? This is the finest part: absolutely nothing. If the dashboard’s warning light did not illuminate, you would likely be unaware that the system was even activated.
When the road is slick, for whatever cause, this indicator is likely to illuminate. Rain-slick roads, snowy patches, and even wet leaves can create a barrier between the tires’ gripping rubber and the road’s nubbly surface. When a tire encounters an icy patch or loses traction in a deep puddle, the sensors detect it and activate the traction control system.
It is also advantageous when accelerating from a halt. Even though your vehicle is not going at a high rate of speed in certain scenarios, wheelspin can nevertheless cause you to lose control. Best case scenario: Your tires spin at a red light during your city’s annual Snowpocalypse, and you appear foolish on the local news. The worst-case scenario is that you lose control of your vehicle and end up in a ditch.
When all four tires have traction and spin at the same rate, the vehicle is considerably more stable. Thus, insurance firms frequently offer discounts for vehicles equipped with ABS and traction control. Insurers adore consistency.
Even older models of automobiles included a basic traction control system. Have you ever witnessed an old, rear-wheel-drive muscle car leaving a parking lot? If the car’s rear end swung and fishtailed wildly while the tires screeched and smoked, it likely lacked a limited-slip rear differential. A limited-slip rear differential maintains the same rotational speed for the car’s two rear wheels (where the engine’s power is directed). Powerful rear-wheel-drive sports cars still have limited-slip rear differentials, but traction control is a much more complex system found in all types of vehicles. In 2013, the traction control system of an automobile with a 600-horsepower, V-12 engine will ensure that as much power as possible is transferred directly to forward motion, with little (or no) power lost in a fancy fishtailing maneuver.
You Can’t Control Me!
There are still those individuals who dislike autos that instruct them what to do. Some drivers want to feel the road, manage the brakes, hear the tires squeal, and listen to Boston’s “Best Hits” album while driving down the road. Then you should be aware that track six is titled “Cool the Engines,” so take a chill pill. But, the guy does make a valid point — occasionally it is necessary to disable traction control. In this situation, it is frequently as simple as pressing a button near your left knee on the console.
Why would you disable something so beneficial? So, traction control is actually less useful when a wheel is well embedded in snow or mud. In such a situation, you want the tire to spin, sending snow or muck flying behind the vehicle until it finds firm ground to grip. In the same position, moving the vehicle back and forth can assist you free yourself, but traction control prevents you from doing so. Just ask the motorist who loves Boston.
Several automobiles have a poor reputation for this. The sensitivity of the traction control system of a Toyota Prius is such that it will stop aggressively in snow rather than pulsating the brakes to find traction. It prevents wheel rotation and even cuts electricity to the wheels. Consumer Affairs has even referred to it as “hazardous” [source: Vehicles Direct]. There are instructions on the Internet for disabling the Prius’s traction control system, if you’re willing to live dangerously. However, if you don’t frequently drive your Prius in snowstorms, it’s generally best to leave it on practically all the time.
Formula One racing has a love-hate relationship with traction control, so let’s speak about that. In the 1980s, when Bosch introduced traction control, F1 was all over it. Then, in the 1990s, electronics and telemetry got out of hand (check up Nigel Mansell’s car; you’ll be amazed), and Formula 1 prohibited traction control. Nevertheless, because traction control utilizes so many of the same systems and sensors as other authorized gadgets, F1 officials could not distinguish who was using it to cheat. Thus in 2002, the F1 gods once again permitted it. Yet, the break was brief. Traction control was also a component of the launch control systems that F1 prohibited in 2004, and traction control itself was eventually banned for the second and final time in 2008.