Things that suck #2: Stability control

In the USA, all vehicles from 2012 onward (and many prior to that) have some kind of stability control to increase safety. This technology applies brakes to individual wheels in order to counteract oversteer and understeer. Stability control saves thousands of lives per year, which is why it’s mandatory on all new vehicles. Stability control has a lot of official names, but I’m going to call it ASS.

  • AdvanceTrac
  • DSC – dynamic stability control
  • DSTC – dynamic stability and traction control
  • ESC – Electronic stability control
  • ESP – electronic stability program
  • PCS – precision control system
  • PSM – Porsche stability management
  • StabiliTrack
  • VDC – vehicle dynamic control
  • VSA – vehicle stability assist
  • VSC – vehicle stability control

Oh yeah, ASS stands for Automobile Suckage System. So why does ASS suck ass if it saves so many lives? Because it’s no fun on a track car. Some cars have a button that gives you the idea that you can turn off ASS. And in some cases, it may actually turn off. But a lot of the time, there is still some residual ASS mucking up the works. In order to truly kill ASS, you may have to pull some fuses, cut some wires, or use some ridiculous factory procedure such as the ones below.

Honda Civic

  1. Turn car to on position
  2. Parking brake off
  3. Press and hold brake pedal
  4. Turn traction control on and off
  5. Parking brake on
  6. Release brake pedal
  7. Turn traction control on and off
  8. Press and hold brake pedal
  9. Turn traction control on and off

Toyota 86

  1. Warm up the engine fully
  2. Turn off the engine
  3. Make sure hand brake is off
  4. Press and hold brake while starting engine
  5. While holding the brake, pull and release the hand brake
  6. Press the brake 2+ times and hold brake
  7. While holding brake, pull and release the hand brake 2+ times, then hold hand brake
  8. While holding the hand brake, press the brake 2 times

On my Volvo C30, I was led to believe that one could disable stability control by cutting a wire. While this did defeat the anti-skid control (allowing the front tires to spin on launch), I don’t believe it defeated the DSTC, because the car still handled like ASS. What exactly do I mean by that? I could never get it to rotate no matter what I did. Also, the car would not hold speed in a corner. It was completely joyless to drive.

Compromises

The more I’ve learned about driving cars, the more I’ve appreciated the difficult compromises faced for dual-duty cars. By that I mean cars that are driven on the street and on the track. Here’s a list of difficult compromises from most to least difficult as I see it.

  • Suspension. Street suspension needs to be high enough not to scrape the vehicle on bumps and to clear parking stop blocks. It also needs to be soft enough to go over potholes, speed bumps, and such without ruining your back. Track cars on the street are never fun to drive to the grocery store.
  • Harnesses. Track cars need helmets, which need neck braces, which need harnesses, which need roll bars. If you’re fully strapped in, you’re safe. If you’ve got OEM belts w/ air bags, you’re also safe. But some kind of hybrid like a roll bar with no helmet is dangerous.
  • Brakes. On the street, brake pads need to work well when completely cold. On the track, brake pads need to work well when really hot. There aren’t any compounds that really excel at both jobs.
  • Transmission. Even if modern automatics are as good or better than manuals, driving a manual transmission on track is more engaging, and I prefer it. I think part of the fun is that it takes more work. But on the street, I’ll take an automatic any day.
  • ABS. In the same way that a manual transmission is more fun to drive, manual brakes are also more fun to drive. I like modulating brake pressure. That said, on an endurance racecar, ABS makes sense as a way of preventing flat spots and prolonging tire wear.
  • Tires. There really isn’t much to compromise for tires, in my opinion. I’m happy driving any tire on track, so I don’t bother with R-comps (which suck, see last week).
  • ASS. Oh yeah, the subject of this post. Stability control belongs on street cars but not on track cars. Where this belongs on the priority list depends entirely on how invasive it is and if you can defeat it or not. So ASS might be at the top or bottom, depending.

Conflicted

To me, the whole point of driving is to be in control of being out of control, to dance at the edge of disaster, to create a physical poetry that borders on madness… um, whatever. I suffer broken cars and lost weekends to chase that fleeting feeling. While I would love for everyone to have that experience, it’s not safe for inexperienced drivers to drive the limit in the rocket ship sportscars you can buy today. So when I get in a student’s car for a coaching session, I’ll make sure the nannies are on. I’d rather kill the fun than get killed in the fun. It’s a shame that traction control has become a necessity.

5 thoughts on “Things that suck #2: Stability control

  1. Some dual-use lessons I’ve learned:

    I’ve been using a 2013 FR-S as a dual-duty car for 4 years; it is a supplement to my daily driver. I initially had plans to develop it along the lines of a NASA spec series — a spec series never really came to be. But the creators sorted some of the car’s weaknesses (oil cooler need, brakes, torque dip), for which I’m grateful. To misquote Dwight Eisenhower: In preparing for battle plans are useless, but preparing plans is indispensable. https://spec86.com/wp/
    When I got to the crossroads (cage it or not, dude), I left it uncaged and dual-use. A modern coupe like this has pretty good roll and crash protection built into the design. So it seems a fairly safe track car as it is.

    Based on this:

    Suspension: Megan Racing coil-overs with adjustable dampers. Setting it in the mid range (1=firmest, 24=softest), matched with the stock-diameter 17” wheels, leaves enough cushion for a comfortable trip to and from the track. Also a good setting for rain. Easy to adjust to race setting by just turning the knob at the top of each one. It’s actually not bad around town on soft settings.

    Harnesses: Went with a harness bar, semi-containment Sparco FIA racing seat, and 6-points, thus working with any neck brace. Add $25 removable butt cushion from your local car parts chain store for commuting comfort. Original seat belt also remains to keep it street legal.
    If I were to do it again, might stick with stock seat, Simpson hybrid S neck, and a CG-lock for the stock belt. Cheap and effective. Air bags remain in place and functional either way.
    And air bags and a Hybrid-S neck brace are probably a good combo for keeping your head on your neck, even with stock belts.

    Brakes: Put in Stoptech BBK per the series (which have to be mated to racing wheels to clear the calipers). The matching Stoptech performance pads don’t squeal around town and are reasonable for track use. Never really tried the stock calipers with performance pads.

    Torque dip. There are a few fixes out there: intake manifold extender, exhaust, chip. I went with the first two, with catalyst to keep it street legal. Use noise-cancelling headphones for commutes as a consequence…

    Nannies: the “pedal dance”, as you described above, before each session, really isn’t a big deal. You get used to it. Car is already warm and ready when arriving at the track, and it tends to stay warm all day. It truly seems to get rid of all but ABS. A compromise, Nanny-Removal-Lite, is 5 seconds pressing the left traction control button – fine for around town, but for track you notice the improvement in behavior with the full pedal dance.

    Best thing about the car is it is true dual-use and still adheres to Cliff’s Rule of Racing: don’t take anything to the track you can’t afford to push off a cliff.

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  2. Pretty well sorted. I think there would be some safety gurus who would scold you for a harness bar, but you may be right that the roof is good enough. The Simpsom Hybrid is a good idea for sure.

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  3. Its not just interfering with power/braking/steering either. When I first started HPDEs I used my daily, a 2011 AMG E63. Big, fast, heavy as all get out. Even so, listening to that 6.2L naturally aspirated V8 bounce off the walls at COTA hitting 7200rpm was heavenly – but I digress.

    At first I’d leave the stability control in sport mode which was actually a really good learning tool for me and kept me from doing anything too terribly stupid, until one day going through turn 4-5 in the damp it got a little “concerned” for me and decided that not only would it intervene, it would also wind up all the windows for safety. This surprised the living daylights out of me and completely shocked me out of doing whatever save I was attempting at the time – luckily there wasn’t anyone close behind me and it turned out fine.

    Luckily a single long-press is all that it takes to turn it all the way off for real, so I did that for a while until I joined the Miata gang.

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  4. So nice to know that Mercedes has a simple off switch. But is it really all the way off? Also, does it matter if it’s all the way off. As long as it’s off enough to restore the fun (and take away the surprises), it’s fine.

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    1. Oh yes, all the way off lets you happily do stupid things. A short-press to track mode, whatever its called, is my normal driving setting and actually works well enough on track that if you’re driving well it won’t interfere (one exception – one of my local tracks has a hairpin with a steep uphill after it and there’s basically no way to drive it without a throttle cut without totally disabling it, but otherwise a blink of the light is a good signal that you’re not being smooth enough – the middle mode lets you get sideways enough to need a correction without interfering so long as that correction comes efficiently).

      The stock mode won’t let you have any tire slip at all, so even things like an expeditious left turn across a busy street can get hairy with it “helping”.

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