What is traction control?

13 minute read Published on Sep 28, 2023 by BrokerLink Communications

Close up of gloved hand holding a winter tire.

Traction control is not just a fancy feature; it’s an essential safety component that has become a standard in modern vehicles. Whether you’re a driving enthusiast keen on understanding the intricacies of your car’s performance or a daily commuter who prioritizes safety above all, get ready to gain insight into the engineering features that keep your wheels aligned with your intentions, even when mother nature has other plans. So what really is traction control, how does it work, and why is it so vital to your driving experience? Read on to find out.

What is a traction control system?

A traction control system is a standard safety feature found in most modern vehicles designed to prevent wheelspin and loss of traction. It is an electronic system designed to ensure that the car’s wheels do not lose grip on the road surface, especially during acceleration or on slippery surfaces.

Traction control comes into play when a vehicle’s tire loses grip and starts to slip or spin while trying to accelerate. This can happen for various reasons: the road may be wet, icy, or simply loose, like gravel or sand. It can also occur during dynamic changes in driving, such as rapid acceleration, cornering, or unexpected interactions with road hazards or conditions.

How do traction control systems work?

Modern traction control systems monitor the speed of each wheel using wheel speed sensors. These sensors are part of the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), which prevents the wheels from locking up during braking. When the traction control system detects that one wheel is spinning faster than the others – indicating that it has lost traction – it automatically intervenes to restore grip.

The intervention can happen in several ways:

Brake application

The system can apply the brakes to the spinning wheel, transferring power to the wheel with more grip.

Throttle reduction

The system can reduce engine power by adjusting the throttle position or, in more sophisticated systems, by controlling the fuel delivery or ignition timing.

Torque management

Vehicles with advanced traction control systems can adjust engine torque distribution to the wheels with the most grip, a system commonly known as torque vectoring.

Traction control is particularly beneficial in maintaining stability during acceleration and in preventing the drive wheels from spinning during starts on slippery surfaces. It’s a crucial aid for maintaining control. Still, it also works hand-in-hand with other systems, such as electronic stability control (ESC), which helps to prevent the car from skidding or losing control during cornering.

By preventing wheel spin and loss of traction, traction control improves safety and ensures that the vehicle’s performance is maintained even in less-than-ideal conditions. It allows drivers to focus on where they want to go rather than worrying about whether their vehicle can handle the road surface conditions.

Understanding traction control is a step towards safer driving practices and better vehicle maintenance. It’s one of the many systems working quietly behind the scenes to keep you safe on the road, ready to step in and take action when the going gets tough.

When was traction control introduced?

Traction control systems (TCS) originated in the anti-lock braking system technology that was first developed for aircraft in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1970s however that traction control systems started to appear in production cars.

Bosch developed one of the earliest automotive traction control systems, and by the mid-1980s, high-end luxury cars and premium sports cars began incorporating these systems. One of the pioneering vehicles in this regard was the 1987 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The system was designed to prevent wheel spin by reducing engine power and/or applying the brakes to individual wheels, ensuring the car maintained better traction.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, traction control systems became more common but were still mostly limited to premium vehicles due to the cost of the technology. As electronics became cheaper and more advanced, TCS started to be offered in a broader range of vehicles. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, traction control had become more widespread, even in economy-class vehicles.

Over time, traction control systems have become more sophisticated, with advancements in sensor technology and computer-controlled systems. Integration with other safety features, like electronic stability control (ESC), has only increased the role and complexity of traction control in vehicle safety. ESC cannot function without traction control, which is a core component of the overall stability system.

The trend in the automotive industry towards greater safety and technology adoption has meant that traction control is now considered a standard feature across almost all new vehicles sold in many parts of the world. This adoption was partly driven by consumer demand for safer cars and regulatory bodies pushing for advanced safety technologies to be made standard.

What does it mean if my traction control light comes on?

If your traction control light comes on, it’s important to understand why it turned on, such as normal operation, activation, or even system fault, to determine what it means for your vehicle’s operation and safety. Here’s what you need to know:

Normal operation

When you start your car, the traction control light should briefly illuminate as part of the system’s self-check process. It should go out shortly after the engine starts. This is normal and indicates that the system is checking to ensure the light works and that the system has no immediate faults detected before you begin driving.

Traction control activation

If the light comes on while you’re driving, it typically means the traction control system is activated and is actively working to maintain traction. This often happens when driving on slippery or loose surfaces, where one or more of your wheels start to lose grip and spin. The light may flash on and off during this process, signalling that the system is engaged.

System fault

If the light stays on and doesn’t turn off after the initial self-check or after it has flashed during activation, it could mean there’s a fault with the traction control system. This is your indication that the system may not be working properly and requires attention.

Disabled traction control

In some vehicles, you can manually turn off the traction control system, which will cause the light to come on and stay illuminated until the system is reactivated. Drivers might do this in certain driving conditions where traction control may not be beneficial, like being stuck in deep snow or mud and needing to rock the vehicle back and forth.

Related systems alert

Since traction control is often integrated with other systems, such as the anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC), a malfunction indicated by the traction control light could also represent an issue with these related systems.

When the traction control light stays lit, it is best to exercise caution. Without traction control, your vehicle may have a reduced ability to prevent wheelspin, which could lead to loss of control on slippery roads. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have your vehicle inspected by a professional if the light stays on or illuminates frequently without apparent cause. The mechanic can read the error codes using a diagnostic scanner to determine the specific issue with the system.

How do I know if my traction control is working?

Fortunately, if there’s a problem with the system, most modern cars will notify you with a warning message on the dashboard display, alerting you to have the system checked. Nevertheless, you can look for several indicators to determine if your traction control system works.

The quickest way to check is during start-up. When you turn on your vehicle’s ignition, various dashboard lights will illuminate briefly as the car performs a system check. The traction control light (often depicted as a car with tread lines or the letters “TC”) should light up and then turn off after a few seconds if the system functions correctly.

Another way is while driving. The traction control light may flash on your dashboard when the system engages. This typically happens if you’re accelerating and one or more wheels lose grip. The flashing is normal and indicates the system is actively working to maintain traction. You may also notice a slight pulsation or a change in engine power output when the system activates. This is because the traction control can reduce engine power to help regain grip on the road.

Finally, you can test it in a safe and controlled environment, such as a slippery road or loose gravel, with ample space and minimal traffic, if you want to verify that your traction control system is working before you get out on the road. If the system functions when you accelerate, you should feel it kick in to prevent the wheels from spinning out of control. Please remember that this type of testing should be done cautiously, ensuring that it’s legal and safe to do so and only if you’re familiar with how the car handles in these conditions.

It’s important to remember that while these methods can indicate whether traction control is operational, they do not replace professional evaluation and maintenance. If you’re ever unsure about the status of your traction control system or if it’s functioning as intended, it’s always best to consult with a certified mechanic.

Should I ever switch off my traction control?

You might consider turning off the traction control system in certain driving situations, such as icy or slippery roads, rocky inclines, or a malfunctioning traction control system. However, for everyday driving, it is usually best to keep it activated for safety.

Nevertheless, here are some scenarios where turning off traction control could be beneficial:

You’re stuck in snow, mud, or sand

When your vehicle is stuck in snow, mud, or sand, sometimes you need to rock the vehicle back and forth to get out. Traction control can interfere with this because it cuts power to spinning wheels, preventing you from getting the wheel momentum you need to escape.

You’re in competitive driving

In high-performance driving situations, experienced drivers may want more wheel slippage to push the car to its limits for competitive driving, such as track racing. They may find traction control limits the car’s performance and thus prefer to have it off.

You’re in a low-speed situation

For some low-speed manoeuvres, such as climbing a steep hill on loose gravel, allowing the wheels to spin can help the vehicle advance upwards without the system intervening to stop the spin.

Your traction control is malfunctioning

If the traction control system is malfunctioning, turning it off might be necessary to maintain drivability until you can repair the system. An example might be when a faulty sensor causes the system to engage sporadically or unnecessarily.

It’s important to note that turning off traction control increases the responsibility of the driver to manage wheel slippage and maintain vehicle control. This is typically not an issue for experienced drivers in controlled conditions, but for most drivers, it is safer to leave the system on in typical road conditions.

How to turn off traction control

Most modern cars often have a button to turn off traction control. Still, some vehicles may re-enable it automatically at the start of each new trip, at certain speeds, or if it detects certain driving conditions. However, turning off traction control can vary between vehicle makes and models, so you should always refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the exact procedure.

Luckily, many vehicles have a straightforward method for turning off the traction control system. Here’s a general guide on how to do it:

First, locate the traction control system (TCS) button

Look for a button labelled “TCS,” “TC,” “ESC” (Electronic Stability Control), “DSC” (Dynamic Stability Control), “VSC” (Vehicle Stability Control), or a similar acronym, depending on the car manufacturer. It may also show an icon depicting a car with squiggly traction lines underneath. This button is often found on the dashboard, the center console, or near the gear shift.

If there seems to be no dedicated traction control button, check your vehicle’s manual. It will provide detailed instructions specific to your car model.

Then, turn off your TC

Press and hold the TCS button for a few seconds. Some vehicles only require a quick press to toggle the traction control off and on. In many vehicles, pressing the button briefly will partially turn off the system, while holding the button for a longer period may completely turn off both traction and stability control systems together.

Be aware that disabling traction control may also affect other integrated systems like electronic stability control, which can also be crucial in maintaining vehicle control.

Next, confirm your TCS is off

Typically, when traction control is turned off, the corresponding light on the dashboard will illuminate, indicating that the system is deactivated. Some cars have a specific indicator light for when traction control is off, which may be separate from the light, indicating a fault with the system.

Remember, turning off the traction control system should generally be reserved for specific situations where you understand why it might be beneficial and are prepared to handle the vehicle without this assistive feature. In all other instances, it’s safest to leave traction control enabled to help prevent wheel slip and maintain stability.

Finally, reactivation

To reactivate traction control, press the button again. However, some vehicles automatically reactivate the traction control system when you turn off and restart the engine or when you exceed a certain speed.

How are traction control systems and the anti-lock braking system different?

Traction control systems (TCS) can usually be turned off manually by the driver, whereas the anti-lock braking system (ABS) is always active and cannot be turned off under normal operation. TCS and ABS are both integral parts of modern vehicle safety systems. Still, as you can see, they perform different functions even though they often work closely together using some of the same vehicle sensors and components. Here’s a more detailed look:

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS)

ABS is designed to prevent the wheels from locking up during severe braking situations. When you brake hard, and one or more wheels are at risk of locking up, ABS systems rapidly pump the brakes. This pumping action allows the wheels to maintain traction with the road surface, which prevents skidding and allows you to steer while braking. Check out our blog to learn more about how breaks work.

Traction Control System (TCS)

TCS, on the other hand, is designed to prevent wheelspin during acceleration. When the system detects that one or more wheels are spinning faster than others, indicating loss of traction, it automatically adjusts the engine power output and can apply the brakes to those wheels. This helps to regain and maintain grip on the road.

How they overlap

  • Both TCS and ABS use wheel speed sensors to monitor the speeds of each wheel.
  • TCS can use the braking system to control wheel spin, much like ABS uses it to prevent wheel lock-up.

How they differ

  • ABS activates only during braking when it detects that wheel speeds abruptly decelerate towards a lock-up.
  • TCS activates during acceleration or when the car is in motion, managing traction to prevent or correct wheel spin.

If my traction control system fails, will my car insurance cover it?

Whether your car insurance covers traction control failure depends on the type of auto insurance coverage you have and the circumstances of the failure. For example, insurance would not likely cover the failure if the traction control system fails due to regular wear and tear, poor maintenance, or if you installed aftermarket parts that affected the system’s performance.

If you’ve noticed a persistent traction control light or associated warning light on your dashboard, it may indicate a problem with your traction control system. That means it’s time to have a professional inspect your vehicle to determine the cause of the warning light. But before you do, whether it be motorcycle, car, or ATV insurance, here are some points to consider on how your car insurance may come into play:

Warranty coverage

If your vehicle is still under its original warranty, the manufacturer might cover any failure of the traction control system. Extended warranties or vehicle service contracts may also cover such failures if the coverage is comprehensive. If it is, then it is best to have your vehicle reviewed by your dealer or warranty provider.

Insurance type

Certain car insurance coverages may cover your failed traction control system, depending on the cause. If the traction control system is damaged due to a non-collision event, such as fire, theft, vandalism, or natural disasters, it may be covered under comprehensive insurance.

If it needs repair due to a collision covered by your insurance, those repairs should be covered under the collision coverage portion of your policy.

Finally, if you have mechanical breakdown insurance, which is similar to an extended warranty, it will cover failures of mechanical parts of the car after the expiration of the manufacturer’s warranty.

To determine if you’re covered in the case of a traction control system failure, review your insurance policy’s terms and speak with your insurance provider or broker. They can clarify what your policy includes and advise you on proceeding with a claim if you believe the failure should be covered.

Contact BrokerLink and start saving today

Understanding the role and benefits of traction control is crucial for anyone who aims to become a safe driver. Not only does a well-functioning traction control system reduce the likelihood of accidents by preventing wheel spin and loss of control, but it can also indirectly save you from the costly affair of an engine replacement due to potential over-revving or loss of traction. Furthermore, maintaining your vehicle’s traction control system in top condition may qualify you for a safe driver discount on your car insurance, as you’re taking proactive steps to minimize risk on the road.

Remember, the journey of safe driving, whether long distance or short, is not just about responding to the conditions you encounter but also about ensuring your vehicle is equipped to handle whatever lies ahead on the road. With BrokerLink, stay informed, stay safe, and start saving money on your path to being a safer motorist.

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