A “control freak” for light trucks

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The best crash is the crash you avoid.” –Bret Dick, GMC performance engineer

Light trucks are getting safer and safer to drive these days for a whole host of reasons. Yet perhaps the single biggest boost to their safety profile comes from technology that’s now rapidly becoming a standard system on trucks up and down the model spectrum, from SUVs to 18-wheelers.

We’re talking about stability control technology, which is called by a host of different names by the various manufactures out there – “StabiliTrak” by General Motors for its light trucks on up to “Electronic Stability Program” or “ESP” by Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems for heavy-duty Class 8 tractors.

[Below, you can watch a video about how StabiliTrak works.]

Recently, Brent Dick, a performance engineer for GM’s GMC division, provided a nice overview of how stability control systems enhance light truck safety and performance – wryly referring to such technology as like having a “control freak” riding in the vehicle with the driver.

“It’s a control freak, but in a good way,” he explained. “It doesn’t nag or tell you how to drive, but when a vehicle is about to lose control, StabiliTrak springs into action – and takes charge.”

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StabiliTrak activates when the vehicle’s computer senses a difference between the intended path and the direction the vehicle is actually traveling. It reacts by selectively applying braking pressure and, in some cases, reducing engine power to help steer the vehicle back in the intended direction.

“It all takes place in a fraction of a second, without driver input,” Dick (seen at right) noted. “This ‘control freak’ is there when you need it and invisible when you don’t. [Because] the best crash is the crash you avoid, and active safety systems like StabiliTrak with traction control are designed to keep vehicles on the road while avoiding spinouts. Future developments will build on this technology to make the roads safer for all drivers.”

GM recently announced that StabiliTrak is going to be a standard feature on its 2011 Terrain SUV and Dick believes this technology – and other systems like it – represents the most significant safety advancement since the development of the seat belt.

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According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, electronic stability control systems such as StabiliTrak have reduced the risk of being involved in a fatal crash by 33% during the past 10 years.

In an interesting side note, Dick said one of the things that sparked his interest in stability control system engineering came from a childhood spend charging up and down off road BMX bicycle trails near the home where he grew up in Rochester, N.Y.

“Racing BMX bikes started a lifelong curiosity into how things work,” Dick said. “Even today, when I see a piece of machinery or electronics, I intuitively start breaking it down in my head to figure out what makes it tick.”

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