WASHINGTON - Federal safety researchers say they have found a reliable way to test the effectiveness of electronic stability control systems.
Some safety experts believe the test could lead to a government mandate requiring the systems on most new vehicles.
ESC was in 20 percent of the new cars sold in the US last year, according to German supplier Continental, which expects that number to reach 50 percent by 2008. The installation rate in the EU was 36 percent in 2004, according to Germany's Robert Bosch.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not seek to impose a particular technology, says Joseph Kanianthra, the agency's associate administrator for vehicle safety research. And NHTSA does not intend to establish a handling standard for vehicles, he adds.
But NHTSA could use the test to set performance standards that cars and trucks could meet only with electronic stability control, Kanianthra says.
NHTSA plans to use its testing to detect "whether the right kind of electronic stability control is there," he says.
Whether NHTSA effectively will mandate electronic stability control, Kanianthra says, "is still an open question."
NHTSA presented its latest research last week at the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles international conference in Washington.
To test the effectiveness of electronic stability control, NHTSA researchers tried 12 emergency maneuvers. They concluded that a maneuver called "sine with dwell" was best.
It is similar to the so-called moose test in Europe. The maneuver makes a sudden swerve one way and then the other.
Even without a push from government, automakers plan to expand their installation of electronic stability control systems over the next few years, especially on light trucks.
General Motors plans to make its StabiliTrak system standard on most vehicle lines by 2010. So a NHTSA mandate would be moot for GM, spokesman Chris Preuss says.
The feature already is standard in all Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi vehicles, Volkswagen's Phaeton and Touareg, most Jaguar and Saab cars, Land Rover, the Volvo XC90 to name a few.
NHTSA's research will boost stability control systems, says Jim Gill, spokesman for Continental Automotive Systems North America. Continental is a top supplier of electronic stability controls. Others are Robert Bosch, Delphi, Denso and TRW Automotive.
The systems are designed to help drivers avoid rollovers and maintain control. They rely on sensors, individual wheel braking and automatic throttle adjustments.
NHTSA last year said that electronic stability control reduced single-car crashes by 35 percent, compared with crashes of comparable models that lacked the systems. Single SUV crashes fell by 67 percent, NHTSA reported.
Other groups and companies have found similar results.
NHTSA says more research is needed.