Stability Control to Come Standard

This week it was announced that automakers will be required to make stability control standard in all cars by 2012. Our US government cited statistics that indicate the technology could save thousands of lives if equipped in all vehicles.

Stability control (a.k.a stability management, Active Handling, and Stabilitrak) essentially uses computers to detect the amount of yaw and compare it to the intended direction via steering wheel input. In other words, the computer looks at where you’re steering, and if there’s understeer or oversteer, the computer automatically applies a single brake to bring the car back under control.

Interestingly, most of the news coverage has referred to this as new technology. In actuality, this technology has been available to the market since the 1998 Corvette Pace Car package. In the world of technology, nine years ain’t new.

As a former owner of a 1999 Corvette with Active Handling, I was one of the first to own a car with stability management. If memory serves, it was about $500 as an option, and worth its weight in gold. I autocrossed that car extensively, and found the Active Handling system (with its competition mode, which retained yaw control, but disabled traction control,) important to learning the dynamics of the car. In my first full season with that Corvette, I won the class trophy.

Due to my personal experiences, I have long been a proponent of making the technology standard, along with side airbags. When people contact me for opinions on buying new cars, I always strongly suggest buying cars with stability control. All the new cars I’ve purchased since 1999 have come equipped with the technology as an option.

Sadly, stability control isn’t a magic pill. It can’t overcome the laws of physics, which means a reckless driver will still be able to spin or roll a SUV. Additionally, the equipment can’t save someone from an accident if they simply aren’t paying attention, as is the case for red light runners.

But every little safety measure with a proven record helps. Considering the cost to add the technology to cars with ABS is only about $150, this is money well spent. Of course, not all cars have ABS, but this ensures that ABS becomes standard, as well.

The automakers aren’t happy. They’re citing the same thing they said about airbags, seat belts, catalytic converters, 5mph bumpers, and every other thing: it will drive the cost of cars up to the point people won’t be able to afford them. Since people need cars, and all manufacturers are affected equally, this is always a stupid argument.

While I would prefer that Congress require better driver education, so people understand the physics of car control, I know this will never happen. In the absence of good drivers, making stability control required is definitely a good step in protecting the public.

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9 Responses to Stability Control to Come Standard

  1. While I would prefer that Congress require better driver education, so people understand the physics of car control, I know this will never happen. In the absence of good drivers, making stability control required is definitely a good step in protecting the public.

    I don’t buy either statement Sam.

    Just about every other first-world country has a better Driver Education and Licensing system that the USA. We’re the most powerful, wealthiest nation on earth, with more resources at our disposal than any other, and our Driver’s Education and Licensing systems are a complete joke.

    My eldest son just went through it all and I took an active part in several steps and did my best to fill in the HUGE gaps they left in his knowledge and experience. The final insult was his testing process with the State or Washington. Their test reads more like a Mothers Against Drunk Driving brochure than anything to do with the act of driving. Identifying signage and knowing data about BAC’s and penalties for DUI pretty much sums up everything you need to regurgitate to acquire a License to Drive in this state. Pathetic.

    As for applying technology as a band-aid for poor driver skill, all it does is ups the price of a car, and increases ignorance of actual driving physics. Why attack the symptom when the root cause is so obvious and easy to fix?

    –chuck

  2. Chuck,

    Thank you for writing in. Your comments are extremely valid!

    Please do not get me wrong — we NEED better driver’s education. We deserve better driver’s ed. It would be so easy to do…but my point is that the current system is so horrible (such as your example of the worthless test in Washington State) and ruled by people who are so unfamiliar with how to make safe drivers, it is unlikley that education will change enough (and quickly enough) to actually make any difference in our lifetimes.

    I mean — it will take so long to move from teaching our children how to parallel park and backing around a corner to more important things, that we need a band aid, especially if it aids good drivers as well. One of these days, we’ll teach teens about the differences between FWD, RWD, AWD/4WD car control, what to do in a skid (more than just saying “turn into the skid” — a saying that no non car person understands!) and how easy it is to be out of control at speeds as slow as 30 mph.

    Stability control provides a level of security beyond what I usually call “idiot control.” It is a perfect safety net for those of us who understand physics, car control and the limits of man and machine, but who get surprised with black ice, a hidden pool of standing water etc… Personally, I don’t believe that stability control will save as many lives as the NHTSA does, but if it saves even a small portion, it is economically and morally “worth it.”

  3. Is “saving lives” REALLY economically and morally worth it?

    I realize this is a meta-concept far above discussion of cars & inane bureaucracy, but one could argue that our species has done far too much to shield ourselves from the reality of death already. The result is that there are far too many of us, despite some significant efforts to the contrary making the 20th Century the most murderous in sheer numbers over our entire history. yet here we are, in greater numbers every year. It took us 130 years (1800-1930) to go from 1bil to 1bil people, but only 25 years (1974-1999) to triple from 2bil to 6bil.

    I realize morality says “preserve life” but when does preserving (and procreating) so much to the point that we are reaching levels of unsustainability become as immoral as killing each other? have we already passed that point without knowing? Sorry to cloud a relatively simple issue with deep philosophical and moral debate!

    –chuck

  4. To all those who thought car guys were a bunch of simple-minded fools who only thought about horsepower and 0-60 — this proves there are many out there with deep thoughts well beyond the Jack Handy variety!

  5. notoboy says:

    I think improved driver education is key, and without a question, I think there should be a better system for giving road tests. Understanding that this will never happen, I do think that better technology in cars is the way to go, and think this is a great thing.

  6. Rich King says:

    Seems to me that a lotta equipment on vehicles should really be optional: big bumpers (extra wt.increased); airbags (ditto); wearing seatbelts is nobody’s business but your own.
    In an era where gas costs $4/gal, seems that putting less features/wt into a car would be desireable. But NOOOOO! If I were Oliver Stone, I could make a case for conspiracy between govt/insurance/safety-nazies to bilk the motorist.

  7. Rich,
    At first glance, this is an issue that instantly evokes either the Oliver Stone conspiracy theory feelings or the immediate libertarian “get out of our lives” emotions. Your comments definitely echo those from a significant percentage of Americans.

    But allow me to give a little “food for thought”…

    Safety items add very little weight, so therefore have very little effect on fuel economy. Case in point is a C5 Corvette, which was the first production car to offer a comprehensive stability control system. The 350hp sports car weighed in at around 3500 pounds and delivered 35 mpg at 70mph with the MN6 option — a six speed transmission. (I’ve owned 1999 and 2002 convertibles, and can attest to this.)

    Fuel consumption cetainly has much to do about weight, but aerodynamics and gear ratios are just as (if not even more) important. Much of the problems with fuel consumption these days has a bit to do with the fact that modern styling (edgy “art and science” brick-like angular lines) makes most cars about as wind-cheating as a Winnebego.

    Bumpers today weigh less than those in the 1980s. In fact, you’ll notice that most impact absorbing bumpers today utilize materials like plastic, fiberglass and foam, as opposed to the metal with gas-charged impact struts of days passed.

    Like many, there was a time I was a libertarian regarding car safety. Seat belt laws? Communist, I once thought! But then I became more analytical about it all. Forcing people to wear seatbelts doesn’t just save the driver and his occupants, it actually reduces the cost of insurance and liability of other drivers. For instance, if you are exceeding the legal posted speed limit and have to swerve to miss a deer and in the process hit another car, that puts you in the position of liability for all damage and injury to this other vehicle. If that other driver or passengers are not wearing seat belts, this can compound the cost to you and your insurance company.

    In other words, other people wearing seat belts protects my interests in this direct manner. Indirectly, the fewer injury/death losses the insurance industry must absorb, the lower all of our rates.

    Although I do have absolutely no problem if in place of mandates of safety, there are economic penalties to penalize those choosing to fly in the face of common sense safety advances. For instance if laws/regulations are put in place that absolves insurance companies and drivers of any injury or death penalties in the event a driver collides with someone not wearing a seat belt, then that’s good enough for me to lift seat belt laws.

    That being said, the more safety, the better…but ONLY if the safety items are legitimate and cost-effective. In the cast of seat belts, ABS and stability control, there are no valid studies to show these aren’t legitimate or cost-effective.

  8. Rich King says:

    Just a minute: check out a recent issue of Road and Track: in which they talk about the increased weight of vehicles. Our VW Rabbit weighed a ton in ’78. A VW today weighs 50% MORE. Fuel econ would be much better, if the wt could be rolled back, coupled w/ the technology you cite. Also: the cost of today’s vehicles are much much much higher, due in part to the technology you mention. Your example re: the accident is true, but uncommon. Look at your insurance policy: the expensive part is not the liability (assuming that you have a good record) it is always the metal (collision) coverage. The more equipment, the higher the vehicle cost the higher the policy cost. All I’m saying is that if YOU want such features, YOU pay for them. I’ll choose my own. When insurance companies write consumer laws, WE ALL LOSE.

  9. Rich,
    You, as well as Road and Track, are right about weight in the sense that cars have become much heavier. I wrote a story about this very subject in my weekly Sound Classics collector car column recently. I noted the factory weight of the new BMW 3-series convertible was in the Jabba the Hut range.

    And a couple weeks ago, the Sound Classics column appearing in the newspaper discussed the lack of progress on fuel economy. I discussed how some classics from the 1940s, 50s, 60s would still place highly among new cars in terms of MPG.

    The problem with associating weight and the safety issue is that cars are not significantly heavier due specifically to safety equipment. The VW Rabbit is a classic example of what has happened to cars — the original Rabbit was tiny and had little to no convenience features. The new Rabbit is significantly larger, more comfortable, and has more NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) insulation material in one square-foot of its body than the ’78 had nose to tail.

    Cars have become much larger, because…well, so have we. The current Honda Civic is larger than the original Accord. It also offers more comfort and convenience equipment standard than were options in Accords through the early 1980s.

    But the largest weight issue comes from things like stereos, navigation systems, seat heaters, power controlled steering and seats, dual exhaust systems, folding convertible hardtops, variable intake runners, drive by wire systems…

    …and those 17, 18 and 20 inch wheels and wide tires.

    Check out what size tires the original Rabbit had…now look at what comes on the new Rabbit and GTI. While drum brakes weigh more than discs, the newer line of pizza-sized discs (as well as multi-piston calipers) also adds significant weight in comparison to disc-braked cars of the past.

    You are correct that collision part of insurance is more expensive, but there are two reasons. Almost every reported “accident” has a claim to collision coverage, but because of crumple zones, seat belts, air bags, stability control etc… the number of liability (injury, property damage) claims has decreased as a percentage of overall claims. Crumple zones comes at a cost of increased damage (like thousands of dollars for a 5-mph hit!) but lesser injury risk.

    I agree that insurance companies shouldn’t write laws. Insurance companies are greedy capitalists like the rest of us, so they want laws that support their best interests. Taking the data that they have spent decades compiling to support their data-driven business, though, to identify how we can actually LOWER our costs long-term through regulation is a very good idea.

    Your comments and participation on the Four Wheel Drift is much appreciated! Keep reading…and keep writing!!!

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