Electronic stability control (ESC) is on the brink of a massive spike in installation rates in the U.S., thanks to General Motors Corp. announcing recently that by 2010, all its new cars and trucks in the U.S. and Canada will feature the anti-skid technology.

GM's brand name for its ESC system is StabiliTrak, which is standard on many GM fullsize SUVs and will expand to midsize SUVs this year. Remaining GM SUVs and vans will have StabiliTrak standard by the end of 2007. As enablers of ESC, antilock brakes (ABS) and traction control will become standard as well.

“Except for the growing use of safety belts, we have rarely seen a technology that brings such a positive safety benefit as electronic stability control,” GM North America President Gary Cowger says.

Recent studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirm what ESC suppliers have proclaimed for several years — that widespread application will save lives.

Based on stability systems now in use, NHTSA's study reported a 67% risk reduction in single-vehicle crashes for SUVs. The IIHS says as many as 800,000 of the 2 million single-vehicle crashes each year could be avoided if ESC was standard in the U.S.

GM is the first of the Big Three to commit 100% of its lineup to ESC, although both Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group are dramatically increasing their installation rates. Suppliers say ESC will be installed on 20% of new cars in North America in 2005, up from 10% in 2003. The rate is expected to reach 50% by 2008.

Industry sources suggest it is only a matter of time before every auto maker in North America installs ESC on new vehicles as standard, and that a mandate from NHTSA is a possibility.

The adoption of ESC represents a reversal of sorts for the Big Three. Since the 1980s, the auto makers struggled to sell ABS (a key building block for ESC) on new cars partially because many dealers could not explain how the technology worked or why it was worth the money.

As recently as three years ago, GM said it would make ABS optional, rather than standard, on a number of vehicles because not all its customers wanted to pay for it.

But ESC is far more than a device that prevents a vehicle's brakes from locking up during panic stops. It uses sensors to determine the driver's intended path and applies brakes to specific wheels to correct when a driver oversteers or understeers.

The technology can prevent dangerous rollover accidents, which account for more than 30% of the 32,000 vehicle fatalities last year in the U.S. A recent study commissioned by ESC supplier TRW Automotive found some 48% of SUV rollovers involve skidding.

TRW and its ESC competitors, Robert Bosch Corp., Continental Teves Inc. and Delphi Corp., are in solid position to capitalize on skyrocketing installation rates.

“You see the smile on my face,” an enthusiastic Josef Pickenhahn, TRW vice president-braking engineering, tells Ward's. “We as well believe we will see the ping-pong effect, and others (auto makers) will respond to this. I can't give you all the numbers here, but yes it's pretty good for us.”

Even though TRW loses some ESC business on GM's next-generation fullsize pickups and SUVs, the supplier expects growth in other vehicle segments with GM.

“We are gaining some of the volumes back in the passenger-car area,” Pickenhahn says, adding that the new mix makes for a “healthier distribution.”

He says the signs are clear that Ford and Chrysler are likely to make ESC standard across their product lines as well. “I won't tell you about the signs, but I strongly expect them to go in this direction as well,” he says.

Delphi has significant ESC business with GM, but the auto maker will rely on at least two suppliers for the technology. Delphi supplies Cadillac's StabiliTrak, which also appears as standard on the new front-wheel-drive Buick Terraza minivan. Delphi also will supply the feature as optional for GM's other minivans, the Chevy Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Saturn Relay.

All four ESC suppliers have been aggressive in demonstrating the real-world benefits of ESC in winter-testing programs for OEM customers and the media.

Most recently, TRW hosted 45 journalists to drive several vehicles equipped with ESC at the company's winter proving grounds on a frozen lake in Arvidsjaur, Sweden.

In Baudette, MN, Bosch hosted journalists for similar demonstrations and to discuss the importance of training dealership sales personnel, who remain the first line of information for most consumers.

Bosch spent $80,000 participating in a 28-city launch of the Buick LaCrosse in which 6,500 dealership salespersons learned about the new car as well as its optional ESC system, says Bosch Marketing Director Rich Golitko. After 10 years, Bosch, the global segment leader, has produced 15 million ESC systems worldwide.

Delphi and Continental Teves held similar events highlighting the technology in metro Detroit in the fall. Continental Teves has been training Chrysler and Ford dealers about ESC for eight years.

As interest in ESC reaches a fever pitch, another supplier has its eye on the market from outside the traditional realm of braking.

Driveline specialist BorgWarner Automotive also hosted journalists and customers recently at its leased winter test track near Brimley in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

BorgWarner says it does not intend to compete with the established ESC players but instead proposes using all-wheel drive to improve the functionality of ESC. With advanced controls, BorgWarner says it can redistribute torque within a driveline in such a way that it influences vehicle behavior.

ESC systems today rely solely on intelligent braking of certain wheels and will override throttle inputs when necessary to ensure stability. But some AWD systems today, including that of the all-new Acura RL, are capable of transferring torque from front to rear or side to side under the new concept known as “torque vectoring.”
with Steve Finlay