ESC is proven to make vans safer but only impending legislation has forced its widespread adoption and there's plenty more safety technology in the pipeline, as James Dallas discovers
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) or Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) as it is also called has been widely hailed as the most important advance in automotive safety technology since the introduction of the seatbelt, let alone driver airbags.
It is steadily becoming more commonplace on new light commercial vehicles and reviewers are likely to loudly tut tut if a new product enters the market without it.
So what is it?
ESC is a computerised safety technology that improves a vehicle’s stability by reducing loss of traction when it begins to skid. When ESC detects a loss of steering control it automatically applies brakes to individual wheels to help direct the vehicle where the driver intends to go. ESC can also help to minimise loss of control by cutting engine power.
Safety in numbers
Thatcham, the motor insurance repair research centre, reckons vehicles equipped with ESC are 25% less likely to be involved in fatal accidents than those without it. It says research conducted by the Vehicle Safety Research Centre (VSRC) at Loughborough University, for the UK Department for Transport, shows the technology is particularly effective in helping to prevent crashes that involved a vehicle skidding or overturning, with the potential to reduce serious accidents like this by up to 59%.
Thatcham stresses that ESC can also provide additional security when driving in extreme weather conditions such as rain, ice and snow.
Under EU law from November 2014 ESC must be included on all new vans produced but despite this, many manufacturers were still only offering it as a paid for option on some models during the first half of the year, largely due to the cost implications of including it. Notable exceptions were Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Iveco, which already fitted it as standard across all models.
Peugeot’s latest price lists indicate that its full van range now gets ESC and Fiat made it standard on all new orders from June. Renault says its Kangoo light van will come in line with its new Trafic and revised Master by including the stability system from the September build and Citroen added the technology to all Nemo, Berlingo and Dispatch models from 1 July to bring them in line with the new Relay. The Berlingo also gets hill start assist while cruise control with a speed limiter is standardised across the Dispatch line-up.
Vauxhall has now got ESC on the Movano, Vivaro and Combo, which leaves the car-derived Corsavan still to follow suit.
Mercedes-Benz is recognized as a pioneer of ESC in both cars and LCVs. It developed the technology with Bosch in 1995 and began to roll it out extensively on cars two years later following the now infamous “ELK test”, when a Swedish journalist Robert Collin rolled an A-class model not fitted with ESC during an exercise that involved swerving to avoid obstacles.
Mercedes introduced ESP to the Sprinter in 2003 and upgraded to adaptive ESP, which adapts to the load on board, three years later.
The Vito got adaptive ESP from 2010 and the Citan has had it since production started last year.
The manufacturer stresses the importance of its reputation as a safety pioneer:
“Driver and passenger safety within our vans is paramount to us and forms a fundemental part of our brand. We have won 10 safety-specific awards for our vans during the last 10 years.”
Mercedes claims other manufacturers are only offering ESP now as a result of legislative requirements.
“The lack of safety systems as standard offered by other manufacturers concerns us,” the firm says.
The manufacturer says many drivers are unlikely to be aware of their vans’ most crucial safety features such as ABS, which prevents the wheels from locking during braking, ASR acceleration skid control, which intervenes in engine management to cut engine power and apply the brakes to counter wheel spinning and BAS brake assist, which detects when emergency braking is required and automatically increases braking power.
The brand’s heavily revised Sprinter, introduced last year, broke new ground with its wealth of safety equipment. As part of its adaptive ESP it comes with Crosswind Assist as standard to ensure the van remains on course if hit by a sudden gust of wind at more than 50mph.
The Sprinter can also be optioned with Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and Highbeam Assist, which stops your main beam headlights dazzling other drivers.
Arguably the most useful safety package is Collision Prevention Assist that alerts the driver if the van is getting dangerously close to slow moving traffic and uses Adaptive Brake Assist to ensure maximum braking pressure is applied.
LCVs have longer life cycles than cars and with fleet managers looking to control costs when making bulk purchases base specification is often the order of the day. Both factors mean vans often lag behind passenger carrying vehicles in safety terms.
This should change now that safety organisation Euro NCAP has began testing LCVs, albeit those that can be converted into people carriers. In the first round of testing in December 2012, the Ford Transit Custom, which offers features such as curtain airbags and Lane Keep Assist, was the only model to gain the maximum five stars.
Other vans have since scored decent results, including the VW T5, which got four stars. There is evidence that manufacturers take the tests seriously with Fiat, Citroen and Peugeot making front passenger airbags and speed limiters more widely available after scoring poorly.
Dr Michael van Ratingen, secretary general of NCAP, highlights the issue facing LCVs:
“Being derived from commercial van platforms,” he says, “these people-carriers are updated less regularly and are generally less equipped for safety than normal passenger cars.”
Braking new ground
Thatcham is now pushing for manufacturers to roll out Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), as adapted by Mercedes for its Collision Prevention Assist, as a standard safety feature. The research body says AEB is the most important active safety technology it has seen in recent years and is lobbying for its widespread introduction under its Stop the Crash campaign.
Using technologies such as radar, lasers and optical sensors to identify other vehicles or pedestrians, AEB automatically applies the brakes if the driver does not respond in time to avoid or mitigate a collision.
Thatcham says AEB is most effective at speeds of under 25mph where three quarters of accidents occur and claims it can reduce low speed accidents by around 20%.
It adds the system can also lesson the “devastating effects of high speed crashes”.
The Association of British Insurers is backing Thatcham’s call for AEB to become a standard fit on all new vehicles, saying it is now available on less than a quarter either as standard or as an option.