Under the Hood: What is Traction Control?

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole

What is traction control? Well, before we get into that, let’s talk about traction itself.

Traction is important; it’s the difference between moving forward and sitting still. Without any friction between your vehicle’s tires and the road surface you’d never make it to work in the morning, let alone to that Grand Funk Railroad concert on Saturday night.

Obviously, different weather conditions play a roll in driving; rain, snow and ice all reduce the amount of friction between tires and roads. Thankfully there are ways to outflank Mother Nature on the battleground of the highway. At least one technology is designed to help drivers grip instead of slip.

“Overall, traction control is meant to maximize your forward or reverse tractive capabilities,” said Chris Harrison, Manager of Vehicle Development and Test for Electronic Brake Systems at Continental North America.

Conti is a massive supplier company that sells parts and technology to automakers around the world. It’s probably best known for their tires, but it has a diverse portfolio of products ranging from chassis and safety systems to engine sensors and turbochargers.

As for traction control, Harrison said “we service everybody.” “In north America our focus is the Big Three.” Conti technology is found on the new Ford Fusion, Explorer and Edge; the Cadillac ATS and XTS luxury cars; and a lot of Chrysler products including the Challenger, Charger and 300.

But how does traction control work? What’s the mechanism behind it? Well, there are several ways it can function. One is through engine management. When slippage is detected, a vehicle’s control computer can cut the power flowing to the wheels, reducing spin and hopefully improving traction.

Another way these systems can operate is through braking. Harrison said “brake traction control works a lot like a locking differential, except we use the brakes to do that.”

By tapping into the ABS (anti-lock brake) system traction control can apply the brakes to just the wheel that’s slipping. A standard, open differential will then route power to the opposite wheel, which hopefully has more grip.

Either way the goals are the same, find traction and “try to be as transparent to the customer as possible” Harrison said. Nobody wants their vehicle to jerk or bang as the system engages. Smoothness and refinement are mandatory.

All of this is fine and dandy with front- or rear-drive, but all-wheel drive is just as important. Harrison said “in a four-wheel-drive application we’re able to transfer torque to the front of the vehicle or the rear of the vehicle,” understandably that’s a huge advantage when it comes to traction. To manage wheel spin these systems can use engine management, the vehicle’s braking system or a special part known as a center differential, if equipped.

SEE ALSO: What’s the Best All-Wheel-Drive System for You?

No matter the vehicle type or drivetrain layout the goal of this technology is the same, finding friction. Still, certain drivers don’t believe in it. “There are some popular misconceptions about traction control,” Harrison said.

If caught in a slippery situation some people actually disable the system on their vehicle to allow wheel spin in hopes of getting some grip. But this is not necessarily beneficial.

“A lot of traction-control systems recognize if a vehicle is stuck,” said Harrison. They will actually allow for some wheel slippage to help find traction. A good example of this is spinning the tires to dig through snow in order to reach pavement. Still, his advice is “trust the system.”

“I can promise you a lot of people worked a lot of hours to optimize the system to make it as good as it could possibly be in winter conditions,” Harrison said.

Why Would You want to Turn Off Traction Control

There are instances where you’d want to turn off traction control, but they are extremely limited and come with risks.

Arguably, the only time you’d want to turn off your car’s traction control system is when it is stuck in mud, snow or on ice. Often, the way these systems work (by shutting down power when slippage is detected) can limit your ability to get out of a low-grip situation. Turning off the system can allow for just enough slip for you to be able to carefully get out of a slippery situation. We advise that once you do remove the vehicle from said situation, you should reengage the traction control button.

All vehicles will naturally re-engage the system by turning the car off and then on again.

Traction control can also be turned off when driving on a race track, but this comes with even more risk, as speeds and performance driving add in risk factors of their own.

GALLERY: Traction Control

Featured image credit: Shutterstock, Jne Valokuvaus

Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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