What Is a Traction Control System? Definition, Meaning and Concept

A traction control system attempts to maintain a car's traction with the ground. Traction can be lost under many different driving conditions, so a traction control system is automatically operated by an on-board computer. It will typically work by sensing a loss of traction and cutting power to the engine to restore proper wheel speeds. While losing traction with the ground can be dangerous, many performance-oriented drivers prefer to disable a car's traction control system. Anti-lock brakes offer traction control during braking.

A traction control system works by sensing when the wheels are moving too fast for the car. When electronic sensors indicate traction is being lost, an on-board computer tells the motor to cut power. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including restricting air to the engine or preventing spark plugs from firing. Since the system is controlled by a computer, it can respond very quickly.

Losing traction with the ground can be particularly dangerous for rear-wheel drive vehicles during cornering. Sharp turns put a lot of force on the rear tires; If the driver applies too much throttle during cornering, the tires can break traction and the car will begin to spin. If the driver does not correct the turn with proper steering maneuvers, he could lose complete control of the vehicle. This risk is exacerbated when roads are wet or tires are excessively worn.

Many cars allow the driver to disable the traction control system. While the system can increase a car's safety, many performance enthusiasts prefer to drive without traction control. They claim that a traction control system unnecessarily hampers a vehicle's power and handling characteristics. Traction control can be especially problematic in off-road racing, which requires cars to break traction with the ground almost constantly. For this reason, high-performance vehicles rarely use traction control in racing situations.

A safety feature analogous to traction control is anti-lock brakes, which attempt to maintain traction on the road during braking, rather than acceleration. Cars that try to stop too quickly will tend to skid because they have too much momentum. While locked tires will bring the car to a stop quickly, they also prevent the driver from driving during the braking period. Anti-lock brakes sense when the tires lock up and then relax the brakes until the wheels start rolling again. When the wheels roll with the ground, the driver can maintain the ability to drive the car until it stops.