Condition stable.

Flippin' Fusion.. mutter mutter...

I was doing probably close to 50mph in the dark grey Ford Focus estate when I came upon the obstruction maybe four or five car lengths in front of me. Even if the surface had been dry (it wasn’t) I knew I had absolutely no chance of stopping within the distance. I hit the brake pedal with everything I had and with the car virtually standing on its nose, anti lock braking system pulsing furiously, I wrenched the wheel hard to the right, missing it by what felt like millimetres. With no time to think I hurled the car back to the left, tyres screaming in protest, in a bid to avoid another impact. The whole thing was over in moments, car stationary, a sudden quiet descending.

Quiet apart from the uproarious laughter of my colleague and I, “go round again” he urged, wiping the tears of mirth from his cheeks, “faster this time!”.

It was the culmination of a two day introduction to Ford course for all new employees and we were in the midst of a hands on session to demonstrate some of the technology in the cars. We’d done a road drive in various models and were now at Donnington racetrack to learn about the benefits of Electronic Stability Program. Finally it was getting interesting.

How Electronic Stability Program works is basically this. A series of sensors monitor things like road speed, tyre rotation, steering angle, lateral forces and yaw forces. They determine from this what you’re trying to achieve, and what the car is actually doing. And if they sense the car getting out of shape it can reduce engine power and apply the brakes to any given wheel to keep the car pointing the way you want it to go and reduce or even stop a slide or spin. So, imagine you’re coming off a motorway at speed, down a slip road and round a left-hand bend. You’re doing 50mph when you hit a patch of oil that causes the car to start to slide. If (for example) the car starts to understeer (where the front tyres are losing grip and the car is sliding forwards toward the outside of the curve) the system will reduce power and brake the nearside (left) rear wheel in order to gently pivot the car back on course. It cannot overcome the ultimate laws of physics (try turning sharp right at traffic lights whilst doing ninety and you’ll crash regardless) but it will provide an excellent safety net that will help to keep the car stable and on line, and you out of hospital.

And it works, it really does work. The course they set us was on a wide open tarmac session with plenty of room to get it wrong or lose control. It started with a series of cones to slalom through which suddenly narrowed toward the end. Normally this would de-stabilise the car but ESP stops that happening with gentle tweaks to the brakes of individual wheels. Then a long right-hand bend to attack, another slalom and then a set of cones to create a roundabout. The advice here was to tip the car into the roundabout at speed and then simply floor the accelerator. Yup, give it everything. This is where the system really proves its mettle. As the car starts to slide the system simply backs off the power and refuses to let you go faster and you simply circle the roundabout at a faintly sickening speed with the car completely smooth and balanced. Out of the roundabout, a straight and then the section where we came in, a set of cones designed to simulate a sudden obstruction (such as someone pulling out of a side turning straight in front of you), with another offset section of cones to avoid immediately afterward.

Now imagine a group of car sales guys, all going round one after the other, all trying to outdo one another, and all getting faster and more confident with every try. On a wet surface. At a temperature just above freezing.

The fact that (despite our best, or maybe worst, efforts) not one of us spun a car says it all.

Brilliant system, and one that should be standard fit on every car sold (and I believe there are moves to make this so in the future).


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4 Responses to “Condition stable.”

  1. Matt Says:

    If the clever braking system allows you to take bends sharper than doing it manually, does that not just mean drivers are going to be using it to drive faster rather than safer?

    • charliecroker Says:

      Matt, that’s an interesting question.

      However the system will not allow the car to corner any quicker, what it does is try (and normally succeed) to correct the car should it breach the sort of grip levels that would normally result in a skid or the car ploughing on in a corner or trying to swap ends. And you have to be really really pushing it to activate it (beyond the simple tyre squealing stage), how many people drive like that?

      In effect, it’s the next generation of active safety after anti-lock brake system. ABS works such that if you panic brake to the point that would normally lock up a wheel (or all wheels), then it releases and re-brakes many times a second allowing you to maintain steering and stop faster. ESP does the same job but laterally (ie against excessive cornering forces in an emergency situation such as sudden avoidance).

      ABS has been out for years but people don’t drive faster or brake later because they have a braking system that is designed to help keep them out of trouble in an emergency situation.

      Ironically in fact, the only people who might push their cars to the limit in cornering are the sort of people that would probably switch it off (despite needing it most). How often have you seen presenters on Top Gear announce that they’re turning the ESP off before burning rubber on their test track? You can bet every Tyresmoking boy racer watching switches theirs off to emulate them.

      So no, good point but I honestly don’t see anyone driving any quicker around corners as a result, nor is there any evidence of it in the millions of cars already out there fitted with ESP (it’s far from just a Ford thing and has been out for a while, the Polite Hatchback has it fitted for example).

      There is another innovation coming on to the market that bothers me from a road safety angle though, and I might blog about that another time.

  2. Pat (MSE) Says:

    You tease, with that heading. You had me worried there, I was visualising you in a hospital bed posting from your mobile!

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