Opinion: Is Electronic Stability Program a good idea in cars?

Opinion: Is Electronic Stability Program a good idea in cars?

Ford is the only manufacturer that allows the driver to turn ESC (electronic stability control) completely off.”

These were the words of Tyrone Johnson, Chief Engineer of the new Ford Focus RS, and they were delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner that it took a moment for the immensity of the implication to sink in.

He continued: “Some people will say ‘now that’s not true… on this car it says off’. Yes I know it says off; it’s not off. We’ve tested it. There are still ESC interactions.” Wait, so Ferrari, Porsche, AMG, M Division, all these paragons of driving purity, won’t let customers drive without an electronic overlord?

Surely this can’t be true. After all, in our less scientific moments – the photographers make us do it, promise – we’ve had most major performance brands at varying angles of attack, pleased that our finely-honed driving skills (cough) have kept us out of the weeds. Has it all been a sham? Has an invisible guardian angel been supporting us this entire time?

I put the question to Porsche Australia’s Technical Manager, Paul Watson. After all, Porsche of all companies wouldn’t dream of such electronic meddling, would it? Apparently so. According to Watson, even with PSM (Porsche-speak for ESC) deactivated, the systems still keep a watchful eye on proceedings and will jump in to straighten the ship if the brakes are applied.

It’s an answer that neatly aligns with our findings. In the latest Cayman, for instance, any slide will have a yellow light flashing on the dashboard, but stay committed to the throttle and you can lair about to your heart’s content. It’s a similar situation with the Toyota 86, and a certain Aussie muscle car once stepped sideways on me, only for the electronics to intervene once they sensed there was some busy wheel and brake work going on.

Ford focus rs rear tyre spinSo it would seem Johnson is right; Ford is the last bastion of independence behind the wheel. Hooray for Ford, sticking a middle finger up at the nanny state and drowning it in a sea of tyre smoke at the same time. But hang on, is freedom what we really want?

After all, if the systems are good enough to know when things are under control yet step in when they aren’t, why would you ever want to disable them? Surely that’s the equivalent of weight-loss pizza, or hangover-free booze?

Well, yes, but there are a couple of important considerations. Firstly, no ESC system can overcome physics, and the more leeway a system allows, the harder it’ll have to work to recover a situation. Case in point, the aforementioned Toyota 86. It may still have “ESC interventions,” but it’ll still let you throw it off the road backwards if you’re not on top of things. How do I know? I infamously did just that at the 2012 launch and earned myself a dressing down from Neal Bates. Oops.

The other point, which goes hand-in-hand with the last, is that you’re probably a lesser driver with ESC on. At least I know I am. Why? Simple human nature. If I lay a plank between two five-storey buildings and tell you to walk across with nothing but air beneath you, you’ll do so in a panic. Do the same with a net hung below and you’ll leap across like an eager mountain goat.

Ironically, by removing the consequences of a mistake, you become more likely to make one; let traction control sort out that clumsy throttle application, ABS fix that bumpy braking zone and ESC correct that stab of oversteer. Now, I’m not saying everyone needs to drive without ESC, for while the chances of a mistake may decrease, the consequences are vastly greater.

However, it is perhaps a timely reminder that as cars shoulder more responsibility – autonomous driving, anyone? – this shouldn’t replace the responsibilities of the person behind the wheel. Ford at least still believes that some of us know what we’re doing, let’s not prove them wrong.

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