Modern cars include a lot of electronically controlled safety features that are capable of some pretty amazing things. Things that most people don’t know about, much less understand. But, we think it’s important to have an understanding of these features, how they work, what they do for you, and what they CAN’T do for you.
Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS)
This is the most obvious one. It’s been around since at least the early 1990’s. Back then, it was only standard on high-end cars, and was optional on a lot of cars. That trend continued through the early 2010’s where it had become much more common. By 2012, federal regulations were enacted that required “stability control”. Because stability control makes use of the ABS system, all new cars sold in the US since 2012 are required by federal law to have ABS.
Let’s start by talking about what happens if you do NOT have ABS. In an older vehicle without ABS, if you were to make a panic stop and brake TOO hard, you would completely stop one or more tires from turning and initiate a skid. Because your tires were skidding and not gripping the road, this would greatly extend the length of your stop (and also possibly damage your tires). And while your front tires are skidding, you have no steering control! Locking your brakes is bad news. If you happen to be driving an older vehicle that doesn’t have ABS, you want to KNOW that it doesn’t have ABS, and you want to KNOW how hard you can get away with braking. YOU have to control your stop in any circumstance. We’ve got an article about Threshold Braking that explains how.
Locking your brakes is bad news. If you happen to be driving an older vehicle that doesn’t have ABS, you want to KNOW that it doesn’t have ABS, and you want to KNOW how hard you can get away with braking. YOU have to control your stop in any circumstance.
How do you know if you have ABS? Turn on your car. (either start it, or just turn the key to on) The first thing you will see is that all of the warning lights on the dashboard will come on as a self-test. If you have ABS, a yellow “ABS” light will appear. If you have that light, you have ABS! The light will come on while the system completes a diagnostic check to verify that the sensors and computer are functioning, and then it will go out. If it stays on, your ABS is broken! You can still drive the car without ABS, just be aware that you’ll have to drive it as a non-ABS vehicle.
So, what does ABS do for you? ABS has wheel speed sensors that tell the ABS computer when a wheel has stopped turning under braking, and it immediately releases and reapplies that brake. It never actually allows the wheels to stop turning for any length of time. Because the tires are never skidding, you are stopping as quickly as the car is able to (and not damaging your tires or anything else). And because your front tires are not skidding, you still have steering control! ABS is GOOD STUFF! But, you need to know that you have it, and you need to know that if you need to make an emergency stop RIGHT NOT, you simply jam your foot to the floor and let ABS do its thing. What you need to know is that ABS does NOT repeal the laws of physics. The car can still only stop as quickly as the tires will allow. But, ABS can improve your minimum stopping distance dramatically, especially when compared to your stopping distance if you allowed the tires to skid to a stop.
It’s a really good idea to find a safe place to experiment with your ABS and learn what it feels like and what it is capable of. You don’t want to do ABS stops as a part of your normal driving. (good way to get rear-ended!) But, you do want to know what it feels like when it engages so that in an emergency situation, you’ll know what it is, and be confident that it’s working FOR you. To test it, simply find a deserted road where there is NO traffic behind you, accelerate up to 25-30 mph, and brake HARD! REALLY Hard! Like, put your foot through the floor hard! If you don’t feel a pulsation in the brake pedal, you didn’t brake hard enough, try again. You’ll know it when you feel it. And THEN you’ll understand what ABS feels like, and just how quickly your car CAN stop if you need it to.
Emergency Brake Assist (EBA or BA)
Brake Assist takes ABS a step further. Studies have shown that an awful lot of drivers simply don’t brake HARD ENOUGH in an emergency situation. They end up crashing into things that the car had the ability to brake hard enough to avoid… they just plain didn’t brake hard enough! So, Brake Assist is a pretty new feature (becoming somewhat common after about 2015) that detects when the driver makes an “panic braking” input on the brake pedal, and it takes over and BRAKES HARD for you.
For those of us who have been driving for decades, this is a disconcerting piece of technology. Studies have shown that the addition of brake assist HAS reduced the number of crashes, so it does work. And it is designed to be unintrusive, just like ABS. (you’ll never know it’s there until you actually need it) But, some of these systems CAN falsely detect your intentions. Say you’re about to miss a turn that you intended to take and you give the brakes a quick jab (after checking your mirror and verifying that there’s nothing close behind you, of course), but you didn’t intend to STOP. Well, if you enage brake assist, you’re going to slow down A LOT more than you intended to, and A LOT quicker. So, in some cases, it could be a nuisance. But, overall, we have to call it GOOD STUFF!
you need to be thinking about the car ahead of you on the road. Does HE have this feature? If they have brake assist… they just might end up braking a lot harder than even THEY expected to. And where does that leave you?
You’ll probably only know your car has this feature by studying your owner’s manual. And if you’re the sort of driver who might occasionally brake hard, you might want to experiment with it and find out how quickly you jab the brake pedal without engaging this feature unintentionally.
On the flip side, even if YOUR car doesn’t have this feature, you need to be thinking about the car ahead of you on the road. Does HE have this feature? You should be keeping your distance, anyway… you can’t trust anybody to not brake hard for no reason at all. But, if they have brake assist… they just might end up braking a lot harder than even THEY expected to. And where does that leave you?
Autonomous Braking might be called by several names, such as Collision Avoidance System, as well. It is another advancement of ABS, and is likely to be required by law by the early 2020’s. This one uses additional sensors such as radar, infrared, and even cameras to detect when your car is approaching the car in front at a rate of speed that would result in a collision. When it detects that, it brakes FOR you. That’s right, even if you didn’t flinch, the autonomous braking system would detect that you were about to hit something, jam on the brakes, and stop the car.
Much like Brake Assist, experienced drivers are blown away by this notion. But, we can’t deny that preventing crashes is a good thing. And, it’s designed to be unobtrusive, just like all of the other electronic braking technologies. You won’t notice it in your normal driving unless you make a habit of driving around following too closely, not paying attention and braking too late.
While it will almost certainly reduce the severity of an impact with a car or object ahead of you, it might not necessarily fully STOP your car before the impact occurs.
The latest advancement in autonomous braking is pedestrian detection. As you would expect, it is designed to be sensitive enough to detect a pedestrian stepping in the path of your vehicle and stop without hitting them.
Obviously, this is all Good Stuff! But, you really, really don’t want to rely on it. The technology will improve, but at its current state, it is NOT foolproof. While it will almost certainly reduce the severity of an impact with a car or object ahead of you, it might not necessarily fully STOP your car before the impact occurs. Your best bet is to always keep proper distance from the car ahead of you, be aware of your surroundings and the POTENTIAL for sudden traffic stops, pedestrian traffic, and whatever other hazards the world might throw at you. Technology is good, but none of it would be necessary if we were all paying as much attention as we should be!