How Technology Makes You a Better Driver, and a Safer Driver Too

How Technology Makes You a Better Driver, and a Safer Driver Too
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“First thing I do when I get in my car is turn off the stability control and traction control”.

Many of us have heard someone, at some point, utter this. Or maybe we ourselves are the guilty party. When asked why it was turned it off, the typical response is along the lines of “’cause I’m a real driver,” or, “it gets in the way of driving”.

In the past, this was a valid argument. Early adaptations of traction control and stability were crude to say the least. Most systems would kick in loudly, far too early and far too frequently. Some, never activated at the right times, but were always willing and able to cut power/apply the brakes when they weren’t needed.

But technology has advanced greatly over the past several years and Ford brought us to northern Michigan to show-off their latest and greatest electronic safety systems. Since this would be a wintery test on snow covered courses, Ford also took this opportunity to demonstrate their intelligent all-wheel drive (AWD) systems, which, also leads to a common notion of “I don’t need all-wheel drive in the winter; two-wheel drive works just fine”. True, but we don’t need air conditioning, a radio or power windows, yet, they’re all still nice to have.

AWD – NO LONGER EXCLUSIVE TO THE NORTH

In fact, AWD is an option that is catching on. Sales of light passenger vehicles in America with AWD have risen from 1.37 million in 2009 to 2.09 million in 2012. An argument can be made that this is due to an increase in AWD vehicles available for sale, but even if you build it, that doesn’t mean the public will buy it; just ask Fisker.

Although AWD is a key purchasing decision for places like the Northeast and Midwest region, unlikely cities such as Miami have seen a 58% increase in AWD vehicle sales since 2009.

We headed to Smithers Winter Test Center outside of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to put a Ford Explorer Sport, Ford Escape AWD, front-wheel drive (FWD) Ford Fusion and AWD Ford Fusion to the test.  A series of tests greeted us upon arrival including an open road course, tight road course, emergency lane-change maneuver, large skidpad and tight skidpad. Of course, everything is covered in a deep, thick layer of snow.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S TRACTION CONTROL

First up is a test of Ford’s torque vectoring control which is the centerpiece to the automaker’s stability control and traction control systems. These systems reanalyse the situation every 10 milliseconds, and make adjustments as needed using the engine and brake to maintain the vehicles intended direction.

With torque vectoring control, power is limited side to side by using the braking system. It will initiate if one wheel is detected to be slipping, or when steering wheel input exceeds cornering abilities based on speed. When the latter occurs, soft braking is applied to the inside tire so that it spins more slowly than the outside tire. This will naturally pull the vehicle through the corner without scrubbing off much speed. In most Ford applications electronic torque vectoring is used for safety, though in a car like the Focus ST, it is used for performance.

This is all well and fine for the engineers of the world, but how does it work? Well, pretty seamlessly. As mentioned, technology has come a long way since the early traction control and stability control systems. These combined management systems produce seamless intervention; making even the most novice driver better.

Despite riding on the stock all-season tires, the FWD Fusions grip well even in snowy corners. It is a bit counter intuitive though to drive this car in the snow as the initial instinct when entering a snowy corner with a front-wheel drive vehicle is to back off the throttle. But, to engage the torque vectoring control, throttle is needed.

After convincing your common sense it is ok to power into the corners, it’s amazing to feel the torque vectoring hook the car around the corner.

A NEW KIND OF AWD

The technology that really shows its worth on the snow and ice though is Ford’s new Intelligent All-Wheel Drive system. An on-demand AWD setup, Ford does not consider it ‘slip and grip’ – which so many AWD systems are. And they do have a bit of point. The system will transfer power fore and aft depending on which wheels are slipping, but always launches the vehicle with power to the front and rear tires simultaneously as it does not know what the traction conditions are like. Then once under way, if no slip is detected, it will limit the amount of power sent to the rear wheels.

This AWD system operates by analyzing factors like steering wheel angle, torque levels, estimated torque needed, accelerator pedal angle, brake pedal angle, cornering force and yaw rate, and then decides which tires to send power to and which ones to apply braking pressure to. It is designed to improve grip, handling and confidence for novice driver. Or, on the flip side, it can be full exploited by an experienced driver.

Each AWD Ford vehicle is setup a bit differently depending on its mission in life. The AWD Fusion feels incredibly composed on the snowy surfaces, and quickly became the favorite to take controlled slides around corners. The Escape is the most sure-footed and feels capable in all situations. And the Explorer? Well, with a selectable all-wheel drive system, spin it into ‘snow-mode’ and there is so much control that not even a Snowpocalypse can stop it. Or, turn off traction control, select sand mode, and the Explorer becomes a willing, yet heavyweight dance partner.

The Explorer’s system is so capable that having a conversation about classic cars, while piloting the big Ford sideways in a continuous drift around a 300-foot diameter snow skidpad becomes as casual as Golden Corral. And that is what these systems are all about; making driving easier and safer for all drivers in all conditions.