ESP and ABS

by Tina Holmboe 20th of December 2009 (archive)

Isn’t it amazing how much we trust technology today? There are people out there who believe that Google Docs is a sensible solution for their company’s internal documents. Seriously.

But this is about cars — again. Those who know us are aware that my somewhat quirky extended family and I drive a Peugeot 307 SW 1.6. It’s a brilliant car, to be honest; you can seat five adults and two kids comfortably, you can pour nearly two thousand litres of something or other into the boot, and it does ten kilometres on half a litre of petrol.

And it has that lovely, lovely glass ceiling which I am not even remotely tempted to break. We’ve had the car since 2003, and it has never given us any unexpected trouble at all — we’ve transported everything from wooden floorboards and heavy–duty granite tiles to seven people and just a little bit of luggage and three meter long copper pipes.

Friday the 18th of December that was about to change, however. We’re off to do some shopping, and it’s –16C. I turn the key, the Peugeot betray it’s French origins and turn over without protest, engine purring like no cat you’ve ever heard. Put it in reverse and find it ain’t movin’ an inch. Try again, more power — it feels, literally, like something is wrapped around the rear axle. It takes effort, but I get out of the garage, feeling just a little bit apprehensive.

As we start off through the snow–drifts that, this being early, hasn’t been cleared from the narrow local road, the on–board computer suddenly flash us a «ABS not operative» message. We are not amused. A moment later we are regaled with «ESP offline». A Bambi–on–ice impersonation ensues, as we slide through some five inches of snow while I kick–start old skills. I did get my license in Norway, in a car without power steering, much less other fancy electronic gadgetry.

On a flat spot I reboot. Same problem — and now we’re stuck. To my great surprise and grand chagrin we are stuck. No matter what I do, the wheels are spinning. Red–faced I must resort to every trick in the book in order to get us going — including backing up to a small hill to get extra speed. This is not turning out to be a good day.

On our way to the store I find myself mentally back in 1986 — my driver’s license for cars where but months old when I enjoyed my first Norwegian winter in a Volkswagen Beetle 1302S. With its Type I engine strategically placed in the rear, that car went everywhere. It literally scoffed at snow and ice. At least on the outside. Let me just say that one year I used nineteen cans of ice–remover. To keep the windows clean. On the inside.

All was not lost. Driving from store number one I chanced a skid, and found to my great surprise that the ESP kicked back in, exactly as designed. It compensated smoothly. The ABS was online as well — and our puzzlement grew. Of course, there was the case of the handbrake which, also rather suddenly, we had to pull up to ear–level to engage. Anyone starting to suspect something here?

Yep. Thursday evening we left the apartment in town, stopped to wash the car, proceeded to a store nearby, and then — in –10C — drove out to the house. Yep. The handbrake was frozen; for the first time in six years the handbrake froze. As it didn’t disengage properly the wheels were not turning as they should, and the computer did exactly as it was programmed: detected this as a fault, and disengaged the systems that were, theoretically, broken. Once the brakes heated up they let go, and everything was fine.

Guess that explains the burnt smell too … come January we get to replace the rear brake discs and pads. Hooray. Until then we don’t get to use the handbrake.