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Jul 20 2020

The ESP Warning Light is On: What Problems can It Indicate?


Modern cars have many separate systems running in unison that not only take care of improving vehicle efficiency but also make them much safer to drive than their predecessors. One of the best known and most helpful systems in the field of automotive safety is Electronic Stability Control (ESP), which is activated when the car detects that a loss of grip is occurring with the wheels turned.

In 1995 Bosch launched the first ESP system for the motor industry in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W140). Over the next 25 years, the system went from being a high-tech device for luxury cars to a mandatory feature for everyone since 2011, in Europe. According to the leading multinational company in engineering and technology in the automotive industry, this system has already saved more than 15,000 lives and has prevented at least half a million accidents that would have involved injuries.

Developed jointly with Daimler, the ESP was introduced into a large-scale production vehicle for the first time in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe (C140) with a V12 engine, in the summer of 1995. The S-Class Saloon and SL Coupe they received it in September. But the truth is that Bosch had already come up with an idea in 1983 to manipulate the torque and brakes and thus be able to counteract slippage and improve stability in strong cornering brakes, a danger on low-grip surfaces.

Engineers experimented with individual wheel slip, using a modified anti-lock brake (ABS) mechanism. Bosch continued to develop the technology until the late 1980s, when it partnered with Daimler in 1992, Mercedes' parent company, to put the new device into production. With the intervention of the microchip and associated electronics, the German supplier managed to make the vehicle turn in the selected direction instead of going straight.

In fact, it was an incident in October 1997 that put ESP in the spotlight. The Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W168) capsized during the "moose test" call with a Swedish motor reporter behind the wheel. The manufacturer decided to delay the delivery of its compact 12 weeks to adapt the program to its entire range as standard equipment. Thus, Class A not only set the trend, it also became invincible in the security section. In 1999, Mercedes became the first brand in the world to integrate the standard ESP into all its models.

How does the ESP System Work?

Based on the Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS) and Anti- Slip Control Technologies (ASR), the ESP bases its functions on sensors that address the steering angle, lateral acceleration, and the sliding speed sensor. The latter is capable of detecting the rotation of the vehicle around its own vertical axis, which is how an unwanted turn is really identified. All of them provide the data to the system, allowing to calculate the corrective braking interventions in milliseconds.

In conditions where the vehicle's grip limit is exceeded, whether due to human error, a sudden change in the road surface or during an evasive maneuver, ESP will automatically intervene to prevent a skid, whether in the form of understeer or oversteer. The system uses the braking system to independently control the speed of the wheels and, most importantly, applying an exact amount of force to a single wheel to counteract the occurrence of unwanted slip.

How can I find out if there is a Problem with ESP?

To begin with, you have to understand the difference between seeing the ESP indicator light on and that there really is a fault in the system. If you happen to have made a somewhat steep change of direction maneuver at a somewhat high speed, you should notice that there is a light in the instrument cluster that turns on and off. But it may be the case that the warning light stays on or begins to flash for no apparent reason. These last two cases, generally, indicate that there is a problem in the car linked to ESP.

While this light will illuminate in most cases when the system is operating under extreme driving conditions, it may also light up when a system failure occurs. In this case, the light is normally steady at all times, or flashes on and off . The first thing to check is that you haven't accidentally pressed the ESP switch, which turns the feature on and off. It's an easy mistake to make and fix that you can avoid an unnecessary trip to the shop by simply pressing the button again.

If the problem is not "accidentally" turning it off (the only time you shouldn't need ESP is if you are racing on a closed circuit and not on a public road), then a steady or flashing warning light may indicate a problem. minor or major with the vehicle. However, this may not be obvious from the start, so it should be checked by a mechanic just in case. The most common problems that arise when the ESP light is turned on include the following:

  • Brake Light Switch - A faulty unit can activate the ESP light. This is a relatively common problem, making it easy to replace and inexpensive.
  • ABS Speed Sensor on the Wheel: most likely it is dirty or with damaged cables and connectors, a common thing over the years.
  • ABS Module: a module malfunction can cause the ESP warning light to come on. It is an expensive malfunction that can exceed four figures.
  • Defective Traction Control Module - This little computer determines when to apply the wheel brakes. It connects to the speed sensors, constantly monitoring them to avoid loss of traction.
  • Low Battery Voltage: when the battery charge is not optimal it can lead to some electrical failures. The solution is based on changing the unit. If the light stays on after you replace it, drive for a few minutes and be sure to make several turns. Once the system performs a self-test, it resets itself.
  • Steering Angle Sensor: may require a new calibration and the ABS warning light is also likely to be on, as both are linked.

A wheel of Different Size: if the diameter of the front tires is different from that of the rear, it can cause the ESP to malfunction, although it can also come on when the spare wheel is smaller than the others.

While most of these components are relatively inexpensive to replace (other than the ABS module), it's worth making sure that the system works effectively, since you never know when it will be used. We recommend checking it as soon as possible if you feel that the light has been on for an extended period of time. Can you drive with the failed ESP? Yes, of course, there is nothing to stop you. But are you really willing to take a risk that could cost some life?

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