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ESP and ABS - that's why they are so important

What is ESP?

The abbreviation ESP stands for the "Electronic Stability Program". Since November 2011, all vehicles must be equipped with an ESP, which means that this safety feature is most likely installed in your car. The ESP is also sometimes referred to as ESC, which then stands for "Eletronic Stability Control".

How does the ESP work?

The ESP is a very important safety feature of your vehicle as it prevents or at least mitigates the effects of skidding. It constantly checks various information while driving, such as the speed and the steering angle. If the vehicle behaves differently than the driver prescribes via the steering wheel, the ESP control unit registers this deviation and intervenes in the system.

In the case of a risc of a skidding accident or the vehicle breaking out of the curve, the ESP subsequently brakes the wheels individually. As a result, the stability program specifically regulates lowering the speed. In addition, the ESP also prevents the wheels from spinning when starting the car if the driver is stepping on the gas pedal too hard.

The ESP in my car

This is what the ESP symbol looks like in your car

For most cars, the Electronic Stability Program is represented by this icon, but not all car manufacturers use the same symbols. Therefore, you should look at the various indicator lights on your car, so you know exactly which symbol in your car stands for the ESP. If the ESP light flashes, the stability program is working.

What is ABS?

The abbreviation ABS stands for the anti-lock braking system. Nowadays, the antilock brakes are an indispensable part of cars and are also an important part of the safety standard. Normally, all cars sold in Europe have an ABS.

How does the ABS work?

The anti-lock braking system prevents the wheels from locking during an emergency braking process as it would otherwise cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. When braking the vehicle, the ABS counteracts possible blocking of the wheels by reducing the brake pressure. This ensures that vehicles can continue to be steered during the braking process and thereby provide you with control over your car.

The ABS is very important especially on wet roads, as it significantly shortens the braking distance. In addition, it increases the directional stability of the vehicle even in curves, whereby an uncontrolled spin is prevented. On loose grounds, such as gravel or snow, however, the braking distance can extend through the ABS.

The ABS in my car

This is what the ABS symbol looks like in your car

In most vehicles, the anti-lock braking system is represented by this symbol. Please note that not all car manufacturers use the same symbols. Therefore, you should check which symbols are used in your car to always be able to check whether the ABS is functional.

What is an ABS sensor?

The ABS sensors are part of the Antilocking system and measure the speed of the wheels and forward this data to the electronic control unit. If one of the ABS sensors in your vehicle is defective, the ABS symbol lights up. Driving on is also possible without the faulty sensor, but it means that the ABS is missing important data. In addition, other assistance systems are also missing important information, such as the ESP, the TCS (tracking control system) and the stability management.

If an ABS sensor fails, you should drive to a workshop as quickly as possible and maintain a safe distance to other cars on your way to the workshop. Without the sensor, you'll need to use significantly more power to brake, and the wheels may lock up when you brake, so you are not able to steer your car. Also, the connecting work of the anti-lock braking system and the electronic stability program can be affected.

Why is the ABS so important?

The functions of the ABS

There are several types of anti-lock braking systems that work differently.

This is how three-channel antilock systems work

Three-channel anti-lock braking systems are mainly found in older cars. The rear wheels are controlled together, while the front wheels are controlled individually.

This is how four-channel antilock systems work

In newer vehicle models, the four-channel anti-lock braking systems are mostly used, as each wheel is controlled individually. There is a wheel speed sensor at each wheel, which transmits the speed to the electronic control unit. If one of the wheels decelerates more than the others during the braking process, the brake pressure of the wheel is lowered. The speed of the car and the wheels is continously adjusted when the driver presses the brake pedal. This also permanently modulates the brake pressure.

The functions of the ESP

The functions of the ESP

The electronic stability program determines the driver's steering movements and measures the lateral acceleration of the car. This data is collected by the sensors and then send to the ESP. If the data shows that the direction of travel and the angle of the steering do not match, then the skid protection intervenes. Thus, individual wheels are decelerated and the engine power is adjusted accordingly to stabilize the car again.

While the ESP decelarates the speed of the wheels, it also prevents the oversteering or understeering of the vehicle. An oversteer is when a vehicle breaks out over the rear wheels to the outside of the curve when the vehicle is turning too fast in a curve. In an understeer, however, the vehicle is pushed over the front wheels to the outer edge of the curve.

The ESP is linked to the electronic brake force distribution, anti-lock braking system and traction control in your car. A lead angle sensor measures where the driver is heading and sends that data to the computer. The yaw rate sensor records the rotational movements of the vehicle. A lateral acceleration sensor also measures whether the car is slipping sideways.

If the electronic stability program determines if the driver steers to the left, but the car breaks out to the right, then the system brakes the right front wheel. This way the car is kept in its lane.

The ESP and ABS should always be functional

You shouldn't turn the ESP off

In many cars the traction control system (TCS) or even the entire electronic stability program can be switched off. However, this feature should only be used in a few exceptional cases, as the ESP provides greater driving safety and prevents a large number of accidents.

Especially in winter, the TCS and the ESP have an important function, as they can prevent or reduce the breaking of the vehicle even on wet, snowy and slippery roads. Nevertheless, there are situations where a short-term deactivation of the system can be beneficial. An example for such a situation is driving on a snow-covered road in winter. The ESP can lower the engine power when the wheels are spinning. Therefore the vehicle can use the necessary momentum to drive or start driving in the snow and worst case you could get stuck in the snow.

Before you turn the ESP off, you should first do some tests on how driving without the stability program feels like. You should try this on a sloping, if possible wide, road where there is no danger of the car breaking out.

What does an anti-lock brake system do?

The anti-lock brakes provide a greater driving stability, steerability and shorten the braking distance, especially in extreme situations. That's why they are very important for the driving safety. If the ABS light goes on while driving, the ABS most likely does not work. It is required by law that the brakes work without restriction even without the ABS, but you should still visit a workshop as quickly as possible when the ABS symbol is lighting up.

If the controller detects a problem with the ABS, the ABS light will turn on and remain lit until the defect is corrected. To determine what kind of defect the ABS has, you should drive to a garage, which can identify the error. When reading the fault memory of your car, the workshop receives a four-digit code that reliably indicates what kind of fault it is.

Since the ABS is very complex, a defect can have many causes, so it has to be be examined by a mechanic.

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