Stability Control–Standard or Optional?
R. DAVID PITTLE, Ph.D.
Senior Vice-President for Technical Policy
Consumers Union of United States
2004 Automotive Dynamics, Stability and Controls Conference and Exhibition
May 6, 2004
I appreciate the opportunity to present the views of Consumers Union on the best strategies for addressing motor vehicle rollover risks. Unlike most of you, we do not manufacture cars; we do not design cars; we do not design or manufacture subsystems for cars. We do, however, evaluate cars from a consumer perspective, and for full disclosure, I can tell that our auto engineers love cars.
I will try in my few minutes this morning to give you a consumer view on the general topic of rollover and stability control. But first, I should explain to you the basis for our consumer perspective. Consumers Union’s opinions, as expressed here today, are based on 68 years of testing and evaluating consumer products and services, (from cars and washing machines to banking services, auto insurance, and digital cameras) and from fielding thousands of questions and comments from our readers each year.
Today’s marketplace is filled with a dizzying array of choices. Consumers who seek value and quality, and who attempt to make a rational selection from among the hundreds of choices for, say, a dishwasher, a digital camera, or a large high-tech color TV, have precious little in the way of information they feel they can trust to be thorough and objective. Amidst the barrage of advertising hype and claims by sales staff, consumers want and need useful advice that puts their interests first and foremost.
It is clear that while the products we test will change with the market’s technological advancements, our core mission—Test, Inform, Protect—will remain steadfast. We will continue to provide consumers with practical advice they can use when it comes to shopping for quality, value, and safety in their everyday lives. And at the same time that we are helping consumers, we are also providing manufacturers and retailers with an objective consumer yardstick for comparing their products and services with those of their competitors.
When you think about it, Consumer Reports, with its comparative product information, is a natural and vital component of our free market system. The ultimate success of our system—success for both sellers and consumers—depends on consumers being fully informed when making their purchase; that is, consumers who have access to what economists call “perfect” information and who know how to use that information.
Consumers Union serves as a major source and conduit for that much-needed information, helping put consumers on a more level playing field with manufacturers and retailers. We test products using methods that reflect how we believe consumers will use them, and we offer objective, unbiased test results about important aspects of product quality, most of which consumers don’t have the ability or opportunity to judge for themselves.
In order to provide these judgments, we require state-of-the-art laboratories, which we have in Yonkers, NY. Here, Consumer Reports has 50 different test laboratories, including eight environmental chambers, a very-low-frequency anechoic chamber for testing audio products, an extensive food sensory laboratory, and a modern video lab capable of generating the complex signals needed for evaluating today’s TVs, VCRs, and camcorders. We also have a fantastic auto test facility, with its own track, located on 327 acres in East Haddam, CT where we test new cars, minivans, pickup trucks, SUVs, tires and many after-market auto products. David Champion, our Senior Director in charge of testing all things automotive is here today. I hope you get a chance to meet him.
At the heart of our work is our complete independence from the manufacturers and sellers of products and services. After 68 years, Consumer Reports still does not accept any outside advertising nor any gifts or grants from commercial entities. Consumers need objective, unbiased advice, and they can be assured that our information is free from any undue influence or control by manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and service providers. Rather than accept outside advertising revenues from sellers, which no doubt could have been substantial, the financial support for our work has always come from the consumer—who is our only client. Acceptance and trust by consumers to purchase and use this information is how we keep going.
Our primary internal focus is on the relevance and the quality of our testing and research—and not on any particular test result. We are organized to do our work in such a way that we literally do not care which product does the best or the worst. We simply have no stake in the outcome of our tests, financial or otherwise. And since we do not have a vested interest in any company or product, our independence allows us the unique luxury to wish out loud for better value, and to be critical where we think consumers are being shortchanged or put at risk unnecessarily. We think this role is as much a part of our job as providing comparative test ratings. In my opinion, both industry and consumers benefit from this approach.
Another element contributing to our independence is that we do not accept product samples from any manufacturer, free or otherwise. We buy all our test samples on the open market with cash or credit card, just as a consumer would. And we are becoming avid shoppers over the internet, both to be faster and more efficient in our work, and to experience what you experience as consumers.
And now, I would like to discuss our perspective on rollover. We all need to start back at square one, where the consumer’s experience with the reality of automotive travel is most evident. Just last week, NHTSA released its preliminary statistics for traffic fatalities for 2002—and the news was not good. We have all read those numbers. Even a cursory look makes abundantly clear that rollover deaths are a monumental safety problem that warrants our best thinking and concerted problem solving.
One mid-western newspaper’s headline read “Traffic fatalities inch up; SUVs blamed.” On the jump page, the headline read “Fatalities: 58% didn’t have seat belt on.” There you have it in a nutshell; what else is there to say? The newspaper’s headline writer did an adequate job of representing the report’s findings. But those headlines may also mislead the newspaper’s readers. People on one side of the public debate say “It’s all the consumer’s fault. If they wore their seatbelts, the numbers of deaths would be much lower.” People on the other side say “See, I told you that SUVs are dangerous. They are killing more and more people every year,” especially from rollovers and crash incompatibilities with smaller vehicles.
We believe both of these statements are true, but they are debaters’ points. They are not dispositive on how to reduce deaths and injuries from auto accidents. We recognize that SUVs and other light trucks are very popular with consumers—but we also recognize that these vehicles are more prone to roll over than sedans because of their higher centers of gravity. And we also recognize that a seat belt is a primary safety feature that is highly effective and readily available, as required by law, in every new vehicle. Everyone—and I mean all of us—must remain eternally vigilant in finding more ways—effective ways—to get people to use their seatbelts on a regular basis. That said, wearing a seatbelt does not affect whether a vehicle rolls over in the first place.
Rollovers are devastating accidents—regardless of whether the vehicle’s occupants are wearing seatbelts. No doubt, occupants who wear seatbelts are more likely to survive rollover crashes than those who aren’t belted. But these crashes are so violent that the occupants are still likely to be left with serious injuries. Reducing the number of rollover deaths while increasing the number of permanent disabilities is clearly an improvement, but not nearly a good enough answer. We must reduce the chances of rollover in the first place. And that is why we think conferences like this one are so vital.
We buy and test well over 50 cars, trucks, minivans, and SUVs every year—anonymously with cash on the open market, usually choosing the most commonly equipped model in a product line. We also try, where possible, to buy a vehicle with the latest in safety equipment to learn how those systems perform, and also to pass on to the next owner the best array of safety equipment as we can. Each vehicle goes through a battery of tests and compared against peer vehicles, on the same track, by the same dedicated engineers, so we can point our readers to those vehicles that perform better and steer them away from those with serious shortcomings. Before you ask, I will tell you that at the end of our testing and reporting, we sell the vehicles we test to our employees and their families and friends.
When we assess a vehicle’s emergency handling capabilities, we push the vehicle to its handling limits in three different tests: Our skid pad test measures the maximum sustainable lateral G force; our track handling test assesses how controllable and forgiving the handling is, and how the steering system communicates to the driver, especially at the limit. The third phase involves our accident avoidance maneuvers, which measure the maximum speed achievable through a double-lane-change course, how confident the car feels to our team of trained engineers, and how the vehicle behaves at the limit. We believe these tests, taken together, always using a panel of experienced auto engineers, helps us achieve our goal of providing consumers with reliable, repeatable information on emergency handling.
Over the last seven model years, we have tested 306 new vehicles, and of those, 76 were equipped with an electronic stability control system. During each of these tests, vehicles with stability control have generally proved to be much easier to drive and more controllable at and past their handling limits. Our test engineers are very experienced drivers, many of whom either have racing experience or have spent countless hours testing vehicles for auto manufacturers. They all applaud the advances made by stability control as they have seen first-hand how these systems can make vehicles easier to control in an emergency. They also understand how those systems can help keep the average driver out of danger.
The calibrations of the systems in the vehicles we have tested over the last seven years have run the gamut from being not very intrusive to being very intrusive. And based on our testing, we have come to believe that the design and calibration of these systems should result in their being intrusive at the point where the vehicle may go out of control—at which point it should come in quickly and firmly to slow the vehicle down as much as possible and bring the vehicle back into line. Characterizing some of the better performing vehicles we have tested, the stability control system is very evident and intrusive during our “at the limit” track testing, but intervened only occasionally when driving on the public roads. And our engineers do drive the test vehicles relatively hard on public roads.
We also believe the calibration of the ESC should be adjusted to match the type of vehicle it is being designed for. For example, we believe a minivan should have a more intrusive system than say a sports sedan—the ESC should complement vehicle and driver characteristics.
Pertinent to our topic this morning, we have learned from our testing that stability control greatly improves the stability of SUVs, substantially reducing the chances of their getting into a situation where they may tip up. This increased stability, and the fact that these systems keep the vehicle going forward with limited yaw angle also allows the primary safety systems such as seat belts and airbags to better do their job in the event that the vehicle strikes another object. However, we have also found that the mere presence of a stability control system is not a panacea to prevent poor-handling vehicles from tipping up in our testing. Indeed, we have seen one case recently where it definitely improved the stability of the vehicles, but did not prevent tip ups on our tests.
In the broader picture currently, there are four research reports (One from Germany by Mercedes-Benz, One from Sweden, one from Japan and the latest from the University of Iowa) indicating that stability control systems greatly improve vehicle safety, reducing an estimated 30% in vehicle fatalities and around 80% improvement in loss of vehicle control. Although no actual on-road study has been conducted in the U.S., all these studies point to a substantial improvement in vehicle safety that can be achieved by the implementation of stability control systems. One wonders why they aren’t required in all vehicles.
In the marketplace today, there are numerous acronyms and proprietary names for stability control systems, which can be very confusing not only for the average consumer but even our own expert vehicle purchasers. For example, you would think a system called “Stability Traction Control” (STC) would be a stability control system, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s an all-speed traction control system with no yaw control. For this specific manufacturer, Volvo, you would need to specify the optional “Dynamic Stability and Traction Control” system (DSTC). We are glad to hear that SAE has begun using ESC as the universal term for electronic stability control.
We have found that sales staff in many dealerships are also not fully aware of what the system can do or if they should promote it to their customers. We have had similar experiences trying to find and purchase vehicles with ABS brakes, and although ABS is now a commonly used term, the sales staff often do not stock vehicles with ABS. Too often they try to push consumers towards vehicles without ABS.
I asked David Champion to sit with our other auto engineers and prepare a list of recommendations for optimizing the benefits of stability control. Here are their top five:
1. ESC systems should be calibrated for public highway use; to come on quickly and firmly after the system senses any slide condition, as you would feel on the test track.
2. Stability control systems should be standard on all vehicles, starting with SUVs and pickups.
3. A vehicle’s brake lights should illuminate when its stability control system is activated. The brake lights would serve to warn following motorists that the vehicle is slowing down, and to caution them that they may be approaching or driving on a slippery surface.
4. The nomenclature for these systems should be adopted as SAE suggests—ESC—so that consumers know when they are buying a stability control system, and when they are buying something else, such as a traction control system. That will allow consumers to more easily and rationally compare vehicles from different manufacturers.
5. Sales staff in auto dealerships should be better trained, and become more knowledgeable of the benefits of safety systems including stability control and antilock brakes so they can better advise the consumer.
In the end, reducing death and serious injury from rollover will be achieved best by improving the product—rather than warning the consumer to alter his or her behavior to accommodate to a dangerous design. Warning labels don’t help much when you are confronted by a sudden emergency. Fortunately, because of your efforts, the remedies available to manufacturers are technologically and economically feasible.
Before closing, I want to reiterate an important theme in our own work: Because of our constant vigil to provide an independent voice, there should never be any question regarding even the possibility of bias for or against a particular manufacturer or brand name. We make every effort we can to eliminate the slightest chance that bias or favoritism could creep into our work.
Our primary goal is to provide information that is pertinent to the consumer’s needs. Our test programs are designed to incorporate our knowledge of what the consumer is likely to do with the product, as well as what the manufacturer advises the consumer to do. Sometimes the two are quite different.
Regardless of the outcome, we call it like we see it. (Remember, no outside advertising; no gifts, grants, or free samples from manufacturers.) Whether a product performs outstandingly well, or it performs in a Not Acceptable manner, we let consumers know our results—all of it, always making sure that consumers are the first to hear, as they are our only clients.
In summary, when the consumer is able to reliably know product performance when he or she is making a choice, competition is keener and fairer for both consumers and manufacturers. Products and services become safer, more reliable, and of greater value. And that was our goal to begin with—A marketplace filled with products and services that are all reasonably safe, and that offer in a clear manner a range of quality choices. Consumers should be able to choose what they want—and get what they choose.
We greatly appreciate SAE’s hosting this seminar, and for its continuing focus on reducing rollover risks to consumers—something not high on the public agenda only a few short years ago.
Thank you. I look forward to your questions.
(1) Oral delivery may differ slightly from written text.