Why does ESC light come on?

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The Electronic Stability Control, commonly referred to as ESC, is a safety electric system found in cars that helps the driver control the car in skidding situations. It is also known as Dynamic Stability Control. In this article, we are going to look at some of the reason the ESC light comes on in vehicles.

The ESC is a safety feature available in many new model vehicles. It is referred to as Dynamic Stability Control system by some brands, but both serve the same function.

ESC was introduced vehicles to help drivers steer when the car slides or skids. It is a very important feature for rainy days and winter. Cars are fitted with an alert notification light on the dash like most of other features. It is important to remember that the ESC is a safety feature.

The ESC system came about as a result of anti-lock brake systems. Both these safety systems monitor the speed of wheels, steering angles and other wheel parameters. The ABS systems are generally an improved ABS system but in some cars, both systems exist with the ESC system complementing the anti-lock brake system.

Difference between Anti-Lock Brake System and Electronic Stability Control

As much as these systems do almost the same thing, there is one distinguishing factor. ABS systems activate when the driver presses the brake pedal. That means when the pedal is not pressed, the anti-lock system is inactive, and this is where the ESC system comes in.

Both these safety systems monitor the speed of wheels, steering angles and other wheel parameters. When the computer in the ESC notices that there is minimal or no wheel control and traction, it reduces the engine power and/or engages the brakes as a way to control the vehicle.

How does ESC system work?

In the mid-90s, ESC was introduced in cars with the first vehicle with the system being released. The Mercedes S Class was the first car to be released with this important safety feature.

As more and more vehicle companies adopted the system, the ESC received many different names including Dynamic Stability Control, Porsche Stability Management (for Porsche) and Vehicle Stability Control.

The electronic stability control system works by use of sensors. Each wheel is fitted with high tech sensors which are connected to the vehicle’s onboard computer system.

When the sensor detectors notice an anomaly in wheel movement such as skidding (loss of traction), oversteer or understeer, they alert the computer system in the vehicle. The system then corrects this situation by automatically braking the car or reducing engine power if the vehicle is skidding.

Many drivers think that when the ESC system is on, the car does everything for them. This is not the case as the system only engages when it detects loss of traction or skidding.

Always try to slow down on slippery roads to keep the car under your control. ESC systems cannot replace the driver and should be never mistaken for this. It only adds to the driver’s control. The ESC minimizes accidents but does not eliminate them.

How to know if my car has ESC

Most cars today have ESC systems. However, if you are not sure whether your car has the system there are a few ways to find out for sure. First, you can always read the manufacturer’s car manual that lists all safety features in the car.

If you are buying a used car and the manual is not available, check for a button on the infotainment system with a ‘sliding car’ illustration. This is the universal symbol for ABS and ESC system in vehicles. There is also an alert light on the dash with the same symbol that you can look out for.

What does the ESC light coming on mean?

Like all other safety systems, the ESC alert light comes on when the system is activated. Most times, the system comes on automatically when the sensors detect lack of steering control usually caused by slippery surfaces.

This is why you will see this light come on during rainy or snowy days. However, some cars have an ESC button that the driver has to press to activate the system. As the car tries to regain control, the light will come on and remain on until you are out of the slippery situation.

The ESC system is always checking if the driver’s steering wheel direction is the same as the wheel movement. If it detects a collision between this two, the sensors go off. When the car skids or slides, the car oversteers or understeers.

Oversteering happens when the car turns further than what the driver intended causing the rear wheels to slide all over the place. Understeering happens when the front wheels lack traction causing them to fail to turn when the driver tries to turn. The car instead glided forward.

Can I drive with the ESC light on?

This is a question many drivers wonder about and the answer is yes. As much as the ESC system controls the vehicle when there is no traction, it cannot do everything for you.

It is recommended that you try to keep the light off as much as possible to have some control over your car. If the system keeps on automatically engaging itself due to the slippery conditions, slow down so that it disengages and it is easier to control the car.

You can however leave it on for the most part. If you ESC control is faulty, ensure you get it fixed as soon as possible to prevent accidents. If you are driving on a slippery highway where slow speeds are not allowed, ensure you have the ESC light on at all times.

Why does my ESC fail to come on?

ESC systems fail due to a number of reasons. When it fails, you will notice that the alert light never comes on even when you turn it on manually. When the ESC fails, there are a few things you should look at. The following list shows some of the issues.

Failing wheels sensors

There are wheel sensors attached to every wheel of the car. When the sensors are faulty, the ESC light will not come on as there is no connection between the wheels and onboard computer system.

The sensors may fail due to dirt and debris accumulating on them or breakages. This will cause both the ESC system and Abs systems to stop working. Replacing the damaged sensors or cleaning them will solve this problem.

Wiring Issues

Since the system is fully electronic, a lot of wires are used to interconnect everything. Any issue in any of these wires will cause the ESC light to fail.

Wiring issues are also the main cause of the ESC fuse blowing. When any of these occur, the light will fail to come on. To fix this issue, take the car to a qualified mechanic to find the faulty wire and replace them.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that the ESC system only a safety feature and cannot be substitute the driver’s control of the car; it only detects loss of traction or skidding.

Always try to slow down on slippery roads to keep the car under your control. ESC systems cannot replace the driver and should be never mistaken for this. It only adds to the driver’s control. The ESC minimizes accidents but does not eliminate them.

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Steven Reilly
Steven Reilly is a qualified mechanic and his passion for cars goes beyond just the technical aspects. He is also an amateur racer and all round car enthusiast. When he is not driving them, he can often be found in his garage under the hood of a rare model. Steven Reilly has lost track of the number of hours he has spent setting up his fine collection of rebuilt models. He believes that cars can provide a constructive and fun opportunity to teach the youth important life skills. In line with this, he is developing a community outreach program, potentially dubbed ‘Cars for change'.

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