When a little symbol flashes up in front of you while you’re driving it will always make you worry, but what do they actually mean and what do you need to do to solve the problem? If you’ve noticed an ESP malfunction, then we’ve got the information you need.
The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) helps to keep your vehicle stable by automatically applying the brakes when you are losing traction and steering control. If the light comes on it may indicate a number of problems, including sensor issues, ABS faults, or a defective brake pedal switch.
What Is The ESP In Your Car?
So that we can really understand what problems might be occurring with this system, we first need to understand what it is and what it does. Don’t worry, we’re not talking about the sixth sense here.
ESP is an acronym for the Electronic Stability Program in your car, which is also often referred to as the Electronic Stability Control (ESC). It is a piece of computerized technology within your vehicle that’s designed to keep it stable while you are driving and stop you from losing control.
Some of the different names that are used for the same kind of technology include:
- Electronic Stability Program (ESP)
- Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
- Vehicle Stability Control (VSC)
- Vehicle Stability Assists (VSA)
- Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)
Unlike safety features such as seatbelts and airbags that are there to protect you in the event of a crash, the ESP is actually designed to prevent an accident from occurring in the first place – and it works too.
Statistics have shown that vehicles with an ESP reduce the rate of single-vehicle crashes by as much as 36 percent compared to vehicles that do not have one.
A 2006 study by the United States Insurance Institute for Highway Safety predicted that up to 10,000 fatal accidents could be avoided every year in the US if all vehicles had an ESP.
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How ESP Works
So, how does this piece of tech actually function? It combines with a few other components of the vehicle to monitor what is happening while you’re on the road and intervene if it deems that the car is no longer in control.
While you’re driving, the ESP monitors your steering and the direction of the vehicle, comparing the direction that you are intending to travel in (based on the angle of the steering wheel) to the actual direction of the vehicle (based on acceleration, rotation, and the relative speed of each wheel).
It uses a number of different components to do this, including:
- Lateral acceleration sensor: to measure how fast the vehicle is rotating.
- Yaw rate sensor: to measure the angular velocity of the vehicle around its vertical axis – or how much it is rotating.
- Steering wheel sensor: to detect the angle at which the steering wheel has been turned.
- Upgraded integrated control unit: to receive and interpret the information from the other components, and execute functions.
If your ESP detects that the vehicle is not traveling in the direction that it should be – e.g. you are skidding during emergency evasive maneuvers or understeering on a slippery surface – then it will intervene. The ESP estimates which direction the vehicle is skidding in, and then automatically controls the brakes, and sometimes the throttle, to stop the wheels from locking or spinning.
While it can make a big difference, the ESP will not apply hard braking or affect the actual steering of the vehicle. It is simply there to provide assistance and help you to stay in control.
It works in conjunction with two other safety systems: the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) and the Traction Control System (TCS), which are designed to keep the car controlled while you are slowing down and accelerating.
It can also help to give additional stability when you are cornering and support safety technologies like Brake Assist and Hill Hold Control.
Considering how many moving parts are involved in getting this system to work, it’s not too surprising that it can malfunction at times.
What To Do When ESP Light Comes
Now that we know what this system actually is, we can talk about what you might need to do when it flags up a problem.
The ESP or ESC indicator in your vehicle is normally shown as the symbol of a car with swerving lines coming from the rear tires.
It will light up when the system is not active or when it deems that it can’t do its job properly, and there is some kind of malfunction within the system.
This can be a result of a number of different things, some of which are more problematic than others.
It is not completely unsafe to drive without a functioning ESP, but it is certainly a lot safer when the system is working properly. If the light comes on while you are driving, it is always best to try and take it to a safe place where you can investigate the issue and potentially repair it before driving again.
Why Is The ESP Light On?
So, what are the different reasons why your ESP warning light might have turned on? What kinds of malfunctions could be happening in the system? Well, there are a few root causes that you may need to address, so let’s take a look at the most common problems.
ESP Is Off
If you turn off your ESP system, then the warning light will show to let you know that it is not active.
Speed Sensor Issues
Some of the most important components that allow the ESP to function normally are the sensors in each wheel that tell it how fast they are moving. If they are damaged, obstructed, or fail, then the ESP system can think that the wheel is slipping when it’s not – or it might show the warning light to indicate that it is not getting the information that it needs.
Steering Wheel Sensor Issues
Another significant sensor that the ESP needs is the sensor in the steering wheel that tells it the angle at which you are trying to direct the vehicle.
Similar to the wheel sensors, the system can misinterpret the information or show an error if this sensor is not functioning properly.
ABS Ring Failure
The ESP works in conjunction with your Anti-lock Braking System and uses the components involved to gather information.
ABS rings, in particular, work with the speed sensors to determine how fast the wheel is traveling, and they do wear down over time and can even break entirely.
Brake Pedal Problems
The ESP also needs to know when and how you are applying the brakes manually in order to determine the automatic action it should take.
If there is an issue with the switch in your brake pedal, it will flag this as a malfunction and turn on the warning light.
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Electronic Or Wiring Faults
Of course, one of the main reasons why an electronically-operated system like this will encounter problems will be down to the wiring that connects all of the pieces together.
The connector plugs can come loose, or the wires can wear down over time and become damaged.
Sometimes, however, there is nothing wrong with your ESP system at all, but the light still turns on. This can happen in error because the system thinks there is a problem when there isn’t one, or it needs resetting in some way. You can try to reset the system yourself to see if the warning light goes away.
How To Fix ESP Malfunction
If there are no mechanical or structural issues that are causing the ESP to stop functioning properly, then you might be able to get the system working again by resetting it.
We’ve put together the simple steps you can follow to try and get things running again, as well as what you should do if it doesn’t work.
Resetting The ESP System
This process can be different depending on the make and model of your car, but the basic steps are pretty similar.
- Step 1: Turn on the vehicle.
- Step 2: Find the ESP/ESC Off button. This is usually denoted by the symbol of a car with swerving lines coming from the rear tires above the word “OFF”.
- Step 3: Press and hold the button for 5 seconds.
- Step 4: Look to see that the symbol has appeared if it was not there already.
- Step 5: Power down the vehicle and wait for a minute or so.
- Step 6: Turn the vehicle back on. If the ESP/ESC and ESP/ESC OFF lights illuminate for a few seconds before going away again, then the system is active.
Resetting All Electronics
If this doesn’t work, then you can try resetting the system in a few other ways. First, powering off the vehicle for at least 10 minutes can sometimes be enough to allow the electrical systems a chance to start up normally again.
Alternatively, you can turn the vehicle off, disconnect the battery, wait for 10 to 20 minutes, then reconnect it and power the car back up again.
Call In The Professionals
If resetting the system doesn’t work, then it’s time to seek some professional help. It may well be that the problem is more complicated than a simple reset can solve or some kind of fault or failure is present that you weren’t able to identify yourself.
At the end of the day, you can operate the vehicle without the help of your ESP, but won’t be as safe. A fully-functioning ESP significantly reduces the risk that you will be involved in a serious incident such as a crash or a rollover.
So, what is an ESP malfunction and what do you need to do about it? The Electronic Stability Program in your vehicle is a safety feature that helps you to maintain control if you are going to slide or skid.
If it’s not working properly or it’s turned off, a warning light will show. You can try resetting the system, but it may be that there is a fault that needs to be addressed – such as a sensor failure, damage to the ABS rings, or a problem with the wiring or brake pedal switch.