Have you ever driven your car around a corner, given it some throttle and experienced the car lurching for a moment, and then gradually pick up speed? That was modern electronic traction control you experienced. While electronic traction control is relatively new compared to how long cars have been roaming the earth, it started a long time ago as a mechanical system. The term “traction control” is a general term, and it is defined by various specific methods.
If your tires lose traction the car could spin and become uncontrollable. Therefore you need a type of traction control to kick in and save the day. Basically, any device or system on the car that tries to help keep the tires gripping the road can be defined as a type of traction control. There are traction control systems that, in the event of lost traction, detect the loss of friction between the tire and road using sensors and measuring the speed of the wheel against information collected about steering, pedal position, engine speed and gear selection. It will then cut power to the engine in an attempt to eliminate wheel spin. A different kind of traction control will pulse the brake pedal.
It started decades ago, primitively as what was called “Positraction”, which is basically just a limited slip differential (LSD). LSD sends power to both drive wheels, as opposed to an open slip differential which only sends power to one wheel. The purpose of LSD is to improve traction. An anti-lock brake system (ABS) could also be referred to as a type of traction control, as it prevents your tires from locking up and, you guessed it, losing traction.
Like most driver aids, traction control isn’t really needed if more attention is put into driver skill. However, like it or not they are here to stay because, let’s face it, when you’re trying to put 500 horsepower down you’ll probably want something to prevent your tires from shredding. From a more practical side, traction control can be extremely useful in the wet. That being said, traction control systems are only aids, and not meant to replace the driver or take control of the car. They should not be depended on because they can fail. If you’re depending on traction control as you slide around mountain passes, it’s not going to save your life if it fails.
A common problem in 1995-2004 Mustangs is its differential. While it is an LSD, it doesn’t always work. It can become overloaded with too much power, and revert to sending power to only one wheel. Although ironically this makes the car safer, it’s an example of a failing mechanical traction control system. In the Ford Ranger from the same era, the ABS will simply fail if too much braking is applied and the tires will lock sliding your truck across the pavement.
In terms of electronic traction control, you can usually turn it off. Some cars have just a button you can press or hold down for several seconds, whereas cars like the Prius have a list of ridiculous actions you need to complete in order to disable it. This process, especially with the Prius, rivals entering cheat codes in a video game. Be advised that turning off traction control allows for wheelspin again, as nothing will be monitoring the amount of friction between the tires and the tarmac.
Modern electronic traction control is, first and foremost, a safety feature. It’s a part of a larger system called Stability Control (SC). Under the umbrella of SC, there is electronic traction control (ETC), dynamic stability control (DSC), electronic stability program (ESP), and other manufacturer specific systems but they all operate similarly and serve the same purpose.
The way to make sure traction control doesn’t become a problem is to not rely on it. Learn how to handle your car by your own skill, and not depend on the driver aids. Just because your car has ABS doesn’t mean you should wait until the last second to hit the brakes. Similarly just because your car has traction control don’t feel safe giving way too much throttle into a corner.
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