What is Traction Control?

What is Traction Control?

Car in the wet, using traction control

Standard on all new cars since 2012, traction control is an unseen but vital component of any modern vehicle.

Traction control is there to give us an added element of security when the road surface gets a bit tricky for your car to handle, albeit not quite on the same level as AWD and 4WD.

Though traction control has been around since the 1970s, early versions weren’t exactly the most reliable of systems, or particularly widespread. It wasn’t really until we entered the ‘90s that traction control really found its footing thanks to added sophistication.

What does traction control do?

Traction control is an active safety feature of all modern cars that is in place to preserve the grip between your car’s tyres and the road surface.

Also known as ‘TC’ or ‘TCS’, traction control is effectively a safety net for when the road gets slippy. The main goal of traction control is to ensure any given wheel that has power going through it is limited in how much it can spin, meaning the tyre can stay better connected to the road surface.

In most circumstances, you’ll want traction control to be active and be there when you need it, though there are times when its presence is not required.

How does traction control work?

The first part of how a traction control system works is for it to identify a slipping wheel, which it does with the help of ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) and its sensors.

If the ABS detects a spinning wheel, then the on-board computer is able to cut the power output of that wheel for a very short time, causing it to slow, stop spinning, and therefore regain traction.

You’ll know traction control has kicked in, largely because you’ll be able to feel a touch of hesitation in the car’s power delivery. On top of this, it’s likely you’ll see your traction control light flash on the dash to let you know it’s active (which will likely say TC or TCS).

It could be that your car has what is called Electronic Stability Control System (ESP or sometimes ESC). This system is able to momentarily apply the brake to any wheel that has been deemed to be lacking in traction and bring it back under control.

Car instrument panel lights, traction control

Why is my traction control light on?

While your traction control light will flash quickly and then turn off when in use, if your traction control light stays on, this is likely an issue that will need attention.

In the UK, this instance is treated as an MOT failure, so it is important to get this seen to by a mechanic.

If your traction control begins to fail, it might not be there when you need it the most. In instances where you’re frequently seeing your traction control light turn on, this could highlight that your tyres are worn.

When to use traction control

The general advice is that traction control should be switched on at almost all times, even when driving on a dry road surface, as there’s no benefit to switching it off in normal driving, and the car’s computer will always be able to react quicker than you if it is needed.

Traction control can be of help on certain roads where there is notable camber, while making sharp turns in any weather can lead to a loss of traction.

Car on wet road

Why turn traction control off?

There are some situations where it could be an advantage to turning off traction control, though these will generally be rare instances for most drivers.

Such situations revolve around extreme road conditions, where the likes of snow, ice or mud are prevalent.

The amount of grip from such surfaces will naturally be low to begin with, and so if you were to reduce engine power to your wheels, this may make it harder to make progress. 

Wheelspin in this case is actually useful as a means to gain some traction – if traction control is switched on, it will try to cut this out as much as possible – so turning off traction control will help keep power coming through the wheels to aid with keeping or gaining momentum.

How to turn off traction control

There will generally be two ways in which traction control can be turned off – either through a manual button on the dash or via the car’s infotainment system.

If you’re looking for the manual traction control system button, then the first place to look should be on the dash to the lower left of the steering wheel (if left-hand drive) or the lower right (right-hand drive). The button will likely have an outline of a car and squiggly lines from its wheels, as well as the word “Off”.

If a physical button can’t be found, and your car is quite modern, then you might have more joy looking on your touchscreen unit. There should be some menus relating to either the car’s overall settings or drive modes that allow you to change traction control system settings.

A light will typically show on the instrument panel to let you know your traction control system is switched to off (or perhaps you’ve been able to find a halfway house between fully on and fully off).