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Maximize Your Car’s Computer-Controlled Driving Aids

Your vehicle is likely equipped with one or more computer-controlled driving aids — digital miracles that can save your bacon when things go sour. However, they need a little help from the organic software: That would be you.

Electronic Stability Control

The most wondrous of the computer driving aids is electronic stability control (ESC). Imagine you have the ability to stop time. You hit a patch of deep water, black ice, or wet leaves. Your car starts to spin out, or plows straight toward the guardrail. So, to avoid the coming accident, you stop time and hand over the driving duties to six-time NASCAR champion Jimmy Johnson or four-time World Driving Champion Sebastian Vettel — your choice.

ESC is better than that. By the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s probably too late for the racing stars to help. Techies: ESC works mainly by applying the brakes on individual wheels to bring the car back to your intended path.

Maximizing the benefits of ESC is easy: First, know that ESC does not offer diplomatic immunity from the laws of physics, nor is it always able to rescue you from making boneheaded mistakes. If you enter an icy 20-mph freeway ramp at 60 mph, or have bald or underinflated tires, worn-out brakes, or drive 80 mph in the pouring rain, you still might crash. But in many cases, ESC does help prevent crashes; the government estimates that ESC saved more than 2,200 lives from 2008-2010.

There’s a good chance your vehicle has ESC, but check before you expect a miracle. ESC began appearing on high-end cars in the mid-1990s, and by 2006, about one-third came with ESC, according to the NHTSA. The government required that more than half of light vehicles built after September 2008 had ESC. All 2012 and later cars, pickups and SUVs must have ESC.

To make certain your vehicle has ESC, turn the key to the “on” position and watch the dash: Look for a warning light that says “ESC.” If you don’t see this indicator, it’s important to note that before standardization, car makers had their own names for ESC, including ESP, VSC, VDC, DSC, and more. So, check your owner’s manual for information.

One thing to note: ESC and traction control—which precludes the wheels from spinning if you’re accelerating too aggressively on a slick road—are completely different systems. If you have ESC, you also likely have traction control. While many cars allow you to disable traction control (which MAY help in getting unstuck from a snowbank), very few allow users to disable ESC.

Anti-Lock Braking Systems

To properly use anti-lock braking systems, or ABS, all one has to do is stomp, stay and steer: Stomp on the brake pedal as if it were the head of a poisonous snake; stay HARD on the pedal, and steer around the danger. If you know how to properly use ABS, any driver can stop as short—and steer while braking—as well as a racing champion.

Since the 1994 model year, more than half of new cars have been equipped with ABS, according to NHTSA statistics. If your car has ESC, it also likely has ABS. Look for the ABS light on the dash.

If you want to use your ABS correctly, just practice. Find an empty parking lot and repeat these steps: Stomp, stay, steer from about 25 mph.

Collision Mitigation Systems

ABS combines with ESC and another computer-controlled driver aid—the collision mitigation system, which autonomously applies the brakes when it receives data showing the threat of a collision — to help increase driving safety. Called different names by various carmakers, collision mitigation systems require little input from the driver: Good tires and brakes, slow down when the weather gets bad, and quit with the texting.

Collision mitigation systems use radar, sonar, or lasers to measure the distance to the car ahead and your speed. If the computer predicts a crash is inevitable, it engages the full power of ABS. Instead of slamming into the car ahead of you at a dangerous 40 mph, the system scrubs off enough speed to make the wreck survivable. You’ll still get an airbag in the face, but you can post pictures of the wreck on Facebook. We won’t “like” them.

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Mac Demere
Mac Demere is a veteran automotive journalist and a recovering race car driver. He raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona and NASCAR Southwest Tour series, and co-drove to victory in five 24-hour races. In addition he was a certified test driver for a major tire maker. He currently is an instructor for an advanced teen driving school.

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