In the very near future every new car, pickup and sport utility vehicle will have multiple computerized driver aids. These will do such things as help prevent a spin-out on a slippery corner, alert an inattentive driver or fully apply the brakes in an emergency.
Drivers can get away with knowing little or nothing about most of these systems. However, a bit of knowledge will help you maximize their effectiveness.
Here's the most important thing drivers should know: These devices can't overcome all -- or even most -- driving mistakes. If you enter an icy highway ramp at 50 mph, drive 80 in the rain on worn tires or fail to notice the light is red until 75 feet before the intersection, you may still crash. Also, computerized driver aids can't do anything about other drivers who run stop signs, fall asleep or drive drunk. And they won't buckle your seatbelt for you.
To help you understand these computerized driver aids, we have compiled a list of the top devices, a little bit about how they work and some tips on maximizing their usefulness.
Anti-Lock Braking Systems: To get the most from ABS, remember STOMP, STAY and STEER. In an emergency, STOMP the brake pedal as hard as you can. The system's computer will prevent the tires from skidding by rapidly releasing and reapplying brakes at individual wheels. STAY on the pedal and continue pushing it as hard as you can. Finally, STEER around the obstacle.
To master this technique, you may want to practice using ABS before an emergency. Find an empty parking lot or similar safe area and give STOMP, STAY and STEER a try.
Brake Assist: Brake Assist overcomes a common driver mistake, one that happens particularly often with vehicles equipped with ABS. In emergencies, many drives simply do not press on the brake pedal hard enough. Brake Assist senses when the driver should stomp hard on the brake pedal but, instead, presses the pedal too lightly. In certain emergencies, the Brake Assist system will initiate, and then continue, maximum braking until the driver releases the brake pedal. Some of these systems react to how quickly the driver's foot moves from the accelerator to the brake pedal. Others use on-board radar to anticipate when maximum braking may be needed, and then pressurize the brake system to save the fraction of a second between the instant the driver touches the brake pedal and when maximum braking is achieved. The only action required of the driver is to not release the brake pedal until the emergency has passed -- another common driver mistake with ABS.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC): The U.S. government predicts that the soon-mandatory ESC by itself may save almost 10,000 lives every year. ESC, which is marketed under many different names, including Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and several others, is designed to help prevent vehicles from spinning out or going straight off the road. ESC also reduces the effects of drivers who, in an emergency situation, move the steering wheel too much (known as "over-correcting") in attempts to control the vehicle; this over-correcting by well-intentioned but over-excited drivers is a leading cause of single-vehicle crashes. All cars, pickups and SUVs must have ESC by 2012, but it'll be standard on most well before then.
Here's how ESC works: When sensors determine that the driver is losing control, ESC applies or releases the brakes of individual wheels to bring the vehicle back onto the intended path. ESC includes the role played by traction control systems and will reduce engine power and apply the brakes if the driver is pushing the gas pedal too much.
Some people claim -- incorrectly -- that ESC prevents rollovers. Almost all -- probably more than 90 percent -- of rollovers occur when the vehicle leaves the road or slides sideways into something like a curb, and is then "tripped" into turning over. ESC is good at helping vehicles stay on the pavement, but the vehicle may still roll over if it is "tripped" by something, such as a curb, a boulder or the edge of a pothole.
While no practice is needed to properly employ ESC, it's important to know when ESC is working: If ESC activity is initiated, it means the road is slicker than you think, you're going far too fast around corners or you're pushing the accelerator too hard. When the ESC operates, a warning light will flash on the dash, a warning beeper may sound and the driver may sense slight jerks and lurches as the brakes are applied and engine power is reduced.
Driver Alerts: These determine when the driver isn't paying attention and then issue audible and visual warnings. Some use on-board radar to recognize fast-approaching obstacles or that the vehicle is wandering between lanes. Others watch the driver for signs of inattention or falling asleep.
Roll Stability Control: To prevent rollovers that occur on flat pavement, some SUVs and pickups have roll stability control. This senses when the vehicle is leaning perilously far over on its suspension and engages the ESC.
With these and other computerized driver aids, it's possible that the number of people who die on U.S. highways will drop from the current yearly total of about 43,000.