Picture this: It's a beautiful sunny winter day. A BMW traveling downhill at a moderate speed along a narrow, snow-covered road runs into trouble as it tries to maneuver the second in a series of sharp curves.
The driver quickly turns the wheel, trying to avoid the inevitable. He can't, and the car slides into a snowbank.
Seconds later, another BMW comes down the same road. But it steers safely through the curves with hardly any rear-end breakaway. It's as if someone had stuck Velcro to the tires.
The difference? An electronic stability program, or ESP for short.
In the 1980s everyone in the industry was talking about antilock brakes. In the 1990s, traction control was the buzz. Today, the halo in safety technology is around electronic stability programs.
And no wonder: They're not too expensive. The cost to consumers starts at about $500. In Europe, the technology saved the besieged Mercedes-Benz A class from a rollover controversy. And ESP could someday diminish the rollover tendency that vexes U.S. sport-utilities.
But how far it goes will depend on how well automakers and suppliers sell consumers on the technology. And if the industry effort falls short, the U.S. government could mandate it.
The video sequence of BMWs in the snow at the top of this page shows how a stability system can be the difference between control and catastrophe. Under most road conditions, the systems will keep a vehicle on its intended track by making as many as 150 corrections per second to the brakes on selected wheels.
THE ROLE OF ROLLOVERS
After stumbling badly on the introduction of ABS to the American market, suppliers have begun a low-key publicity program on the benefits of stability control systems. But one attribute - the potential to reduce rollover deaths - has caught the eye of Washington lawmakers pondering a compulsory rollover standard for makes of sport-utilities.
If approved, a rollover standard could provide the critical mass needed to make the technology virtually universal, analysts say.
'I think consumer safety is becoming more of a top issue, not only with airbags and seat belts but also in terms of vehicle dynamics and the physics of the vehicle in motion,' says Scott Upham, president of Providata Automotive Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., consulting firm.
'These types of systems definitely are going to enhance the vehicle's attractiveness in the market.'
Stability enhancement has been around for a while. It has been marketed by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and other brands here and in Europe for several years. The Chevrolet Corvette and some Cadillac models have a stability system, as do some Japanese luxury imports.
What is new is that the systems are slowly trickling down to less expensive cars in North America, such as the Oldsmobile Intrigue and the Ford Focus, and onto a wide range of trucks. Ford says it will offer electronic stability enhancement on all of its light-duty trucks by the 2005 model year.
HIGH VOLUME, LOWER COST
As volumes increase, costs can be expected to decrease correspondingly, giving demand in the U.S. market a shot in the arm.
Continental Teves Inc., for example, said it supplied nearly 400,000 systems worldwide in the 1999 model year and 1.4 million units in the 2000 model year, a 250 percent increase. And the company says it has worldwide orders for 3.4 million units for 2003.
Robert Bosch Corp., which installed 850,000 systems worldwide in 1999, says it expects that number to rise to 1.5 million units this year and 2.1 million in 2001.
Europe is by far the biggest market, and likely will remain so for several years, the companies say. By 2004, Continental Teves says it expects one-third of all light vehicles sold in Europe - 5 million vehicles annually - to have stability enhancement.
In contrast, demand in North America is only now beginning to rise, the companies and analysts say.
Still, Upham says installation rates here could outpace Europe before the end of the decade.
'It might be a slow ramp, but I think we will get to the same penetration rates (as ABS),' Upham says. 'But it might take six years to do it.'
About 90 percent of the light trucks sold in North America and 65 percent of all cars sold during the 2000 model year have ABS.
THE MOOSE TEST
Why the booming demand in Europe? Credit the 'moose test.'
When Mercedes-Benz invited the European press to drive its new A class in October 1997, a Swedish writer rolled the car during a rapid crash-avoidance maneuver called the moose test - so named because it is meant to simulate a driver trying to avoid an animal appearing suddenly on the highway.
Sales plunged amid worldwide publicity about the rollover, and a badly embarrassed Mercedes halted production of the car for re-engineering.
The most important fix was the addition of an electronic stability system as standard equipment. Up to that time, the system had been an option only on the expensive Mercedes S class.
It solved the problem and saved the A class.
That action led to a second engineering decision: Daimler delayed production of its new mini Smart car and added a stability-control system before it went on sale in 1998.
As with most new technology, the degree of acceptance for stability control will depend heavily on pricing and the customer's perception of value and utility. Consumers are not likely to choose stability enhancement if they believe there is only limited use for the system.
Price may be a big stumbling block, especially at the low end of the market, where the cost of an option represents a correspondingly bigger percentage of the purchase price.
The small-car segment is composed of price-conscious buyers, points out Phil Headley, chief engineer of Continental Teves, and 'anything you add on is scrutinized quite a bit.'
WHAT PRICE SAFETY?
The four-channel, or four-wheel, systems at the luxury end of the market, where they typically are offered as standard equipment, cost automakers about $500 apiece.
But outside the luxury segment, where the systems more commonly are sold as options, retail prices can be high.
At Buick, for example, the base 2001 Buick Park Avenue offers the two-channel - meaning two wheel - StabiliTrak system for $495. It is standard on the Park Avenue Ultra.
On the 2001 Oldsmobile Intrigue GL and GLS, Bosch's four-channel Precision Control System can be had for $595. But the system price includes ABS, Goodyear Eagle RSA tires, a 3.29: 1 axle ratio and Magnasteer II variable-assist steering.
On the lower-priced Intrigue GX, however, the buyer also must order the $590 Driver Control Package, which includes traction control, keyless entry and other features, to get the $595 stability program. The total cost: $1,185.
Ford offers its four-channel AdvanceTrac system on the Ford Focus ZX3 hatchback and ZTS sedan as part of a $1,625 option package that includes ABS, traction control and rear disc brakes.
The likelihood of 100 percent acceptance for ESP across the entire light-duty vehicle fleet looks slim, even though the price of the technology likely will drop as volume increases.
Comparisons of the new stability systems with the market's cool response to ABS are unavoidable. The parts industry says it has only itself to blame for the poor response to ABS because it did not educate the public about how to use the new technology.
When Mercedes-Benz introduced ABS to the North American market 18 years ago, the industry believed the technology would become as common as power brakes and that all light-duty vehicles eventually would offer the system standard.
DROPPED THE BALL
'ABS was one of those things that we threw out there, and said, `Everybody will figure out how to use it,' ' says Headley of Continental Teves.
'We need to make sure we don't get that same attitude with ESP. We need to educate people, let them know what to do with it, what it does for them, and make better drivers out of them.'
Since stability enhancement works in conjunction with ABS and traction control, the industry doesn't want to make the same mistake.
To raise awareness about the new stability technology, the industry has charged the ABS Education Alliance in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to work with state departments of motor vehicles and drivers' education programs to explain how the system operates.
The alliance is funded by Bosch, Continental Teves and Delphi Automotive Systems. Some automakers also are providing videotapes to dealers.
But even if the alliance is successful, the possibility of confusion remains high. While 'antilock brakes' and 'ABS' are terms generally used by all automakers, stability enhancement is marketed under as many as 15 different names.
For example, Mercedes-Benz offers Electronic Stability Control, BMW has Dynamic Stability Control, Ford markets AdvanceTrac and Toyota offers Vehicle Stability Control.
GM has four systems: StabiliTrak, StabiliTrak 2.0, Active Handling System and Precision Control System.
Despite the apparent limits that price will put on demand, there's the Washington card to keep in mind: A new Congress may force automakers to add stability enhancement to all sport-utilities and pickups, regardless of cost.
While the industry already was planning to offer stability enhancement on several next-generation sport-utilities and pickups, the publicity surrounding rollovers involving Firestone tires and Ford Explorers may pull the system quicker into a broader range of light-duty trucks.
'The original objective (of stability enhancement) was to reduce skids and slides that are induced by oversteer and understeer,' says Fred Heiler, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz of North America.
'But you might say that a fringe benefit or a bonus is that it tends to reduce the likelihood of rollover. It can't eliminate it entirely. But in terms of helping to maintain control and preventing that slide or skid in the first place, ESP does a lot.'
Rollovers account for about 2 percent all of crashes but about 25 percent of all fatalities, says Terrence Connolly, director of the General Motors Safety Center,
Greg Janicki, vice president of CSM Worldwide, a Northville, Mich., marketing and consulting firm, says stricter rollover requirements would force the spread of the technology.
'Stability control is one way that the industry might adapt, or they might just redesign vehicles to not be so top-heavy,' he said
But will stability enhancement one day be viewed as a must-have system for the owners of all cars, pickups, vans and sport-utilities?
'The electronic stability systems we hear about in theory are good, (but) we need to see some real world evidence before everybody starts being highly enthusiastic,' said Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
'Until recently the manufacturers were putting the stability systems on those vehicles that were least in need of them. They weren't putting them on the utility vehicles and pickups - they were putting them on cars. It would have been more exciting if they had put them on the unstable vehicles first.'