Walk into a suspension workshop and you could be forgiven for thinking nothing’s changed in fifty years.
You’d like better handling, Sir? No problem – here we have new, shortened and stiffer springs. And you’ll need new dampers – yes, here are our better quality, adjustable shocks. Improved bushes and stiffer anti-roll bars? Yep, they’ll also need to be on your list…
But snap back to current reality and it doesn’t take much nous to realise that confining handling changes to just the mechanical bits is fundamentally flawed. What’s been missing until now is an ability to adjust the factory electronic systems that, in many cars, make more of a difference to real-world handling outcomes than pretty much anything you’d normally do with springs or sway bars.
Enter Whiteline’s Black Box – a driver-adjustable control system for factory-fitted, electronic stability control systems.
For what we think is an amazingly low price, you can now have infinite adjustment over the way the electronic stability control system operates.
Want more oversteer? Turn the knob.
Want the car’s ability control system to have the same handling approach as standard – but to intervene much later, when the car is more out of shape? Turn the knob.
Want to have instantly accessible presets for wet weather, beginner driver and the track? Turn the knob…
This is a revolution in handling modification that cannot be understated in its importance. Not only can you adjust the handling balance of the standard car, you can also modify the suspension (with those springs, bars and dampers) – and then adjust the stability control to match the mechanical modifications!
Or what if you boost engine power and find that the car is more inclined to power oversteer or power understeer? Again, simply adjust the Black Box so that the stability control system works perfectly with the increased power.
The Whiteline Black Box can never be outdated, no matter what changes you later make to the car. If you want improved handling, that makes the Black Box the first modification to buy.
Electronic Stability Control
Many people (and especially performance enthusiasts) have a completely wrong idea of how electronic stability control functions – and its benefits and disadvantages.
Electronic stability control (ESP) uses an electronic sensor to detect the rotation of the car around its vertical axis. This sensor, called a yaw sensor, can detect whether the car is turning clockwise or anti-clockwise, and how fast it is doing so. The other major input to ESP is a steering angle sensor, that – as the name suggests – senses how much steering lock you have dialled-in, and the direction of that steering lock.
The system watches the steering lock and checks that the car is turning in the right direction, and at the right rate, to match the steering input.
If the system detects that the car is not following the path dictated by the steering input, it knows the car is sliding. If the car is not turning as much as the steering indicates it should be, the car must be understeering. If the car is turning more than the steering input, it must be oversteering.
If either of these conditions is detected, ESP brakes individual wheels and/or reduces engine power. These interventions are designed to return the car’s path to that being requested (via the steering) by the driver.
From this (very quick!) overview you can see that the system makes a judgement about how much the yaw angle of the car can deviate from the steering input before ESP intervenes. In other words, how much sliding (understeer or oversteer) is permitted.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that the judgement about when ESP should intervene varies a lot from model to model. Some manufacturers program the ESP software to allow the car to develop quite a lot of attitude before the ESP system intervenes. Other manufacturers have the brakes hammering away and the power being decreased before the driver can detect any sliding at all!
Some cars even have switchable levels of ESP, where for example the car has to be sideways almost beyond the point of recovery before the ESP comes in.
The sensitivity of the ESP, and whether it lets a car have more oversteer (or more understeer) before it intervenes, is entirely up to the car company’s policies and its engineers.
And that takes us to a really important point.
Whiteline’s Black Box allows you to make the judgement as to how early ESP should intervene. It also allows you to make the judgement as to the driving conditions, driver experience, modifications made to the mechanical parts of the suspension, or to engine power. In short, it allows the custom tailoring of the ESP system for your specific application.
VDC, ESP, ESC or…?
Electronic stability control is known by a wide range of abbreviations – ESP, ESC, VDC, etc. Don’t worry about what it is called – all manufacturers use the same fundamental approach.
So what does this wondrous modification device look like? As the pics show, the Black Box is, well, black, and, um, a box. It’s about the size of a small paperback novel and has on its front face two pushbuttons (accessed through the flexible membrane faceplate), a two-line back-lit LCD and a knob. There are also two LEDs visible – a red and a green.
It is recommended an auto electrician does the installation, although with only a few simple connections and with full fitting instructions provided, it’s easily within the realm of the DIY-er.
On the tested VE Holden Commodore, the connections are:
There are three modes of operation. These are:
OEM - stability control operates as standard; Mode LED is off
Active - stability control behaviour is altered on the basis of the selected Black Box preset; Mode LED is green
Tuning – the action of the stability control can be altered real time (this mode is also used to set the parameters for each of the presets); Mode LED is red
After starting the car, the user has to scroll through a (long!) warning and product disclaimer notice before pressing OK. Because at this stage no presets will have been set, the next step is to enter Active (tuning) mode, a process that requires a tricky simultaneous pushing of the two buttons. In tuning mode, two controls are available. Because the Black Box is a world first, the developers have had to invent new terms to describe the action of the tuning adjustments.
‘Volume’ describes how much action is permitted by the ESP. When Volume is set to 100, the ESP system is as sensitive as standard. When Volume is set to 0, the ESP has no input. So for example, if you have a car that has ESP that intervenes too early, all you need to do is to dial-back the Volume a bit.
‘Bias’ describes how much understeer or oversteer occurs. So if you want the car to oversteer a lot, you set the Bias control to +40. If you want the car to understeer a lot, you set the Bias control to -40. If you’re happy with the factory understeer/oversteer, set it to 0.
In Tuning mode you can set both Volume and Bias independently and across the full range of values. Once you have selected a combination that suits, this can be memorised to become one of the five available presets. Therefore, you can have up to five (plus standard) different ESP settings available! To state this again, by using the presets you can have the ESP set perfectly for wet conditions, for dry conditions, for your girlfriend driving your car, for the track – and can even alter the ‘tune’ of the presets as your tyres wear, your dampers start to get tired, and so on!
With the presets previously calibrated, you’d normally get into the car, OK the warning and then select the right preset for the conditions.
We were able to drive a VE Commodore fitted with the Black Box. The main venue was the Wakefield Park track but we were also able to drive the Commodore on both bitumen and dirt roads.
To be honest, the system is the type that would be best experienced over a few weeks of driving in all sorts of conditions, but even in our brief sampling, it was obvious that the Black Box does what its maker claims.
By altering the settings, we were able to change the action of the Commodore’s ESP to give more composed and faster cornering: in comparison, the standard settings felt quite lame, with bags of understeer and overly early intervention.
On dirt, the traction control and ABS continued to work exactly as standard, while altering the Black Box settings gave the opportunity for lots of sliding without the car ever getting away.
(Incidentally, when ESP is intervening, the brake lights are turned on, so explaining the fact that in the pics, the Commodore appears to be being braked through every corner!)
How it Works
Black Box development has so far cost Whiteline AUD$250,000 and over three years – so the company is not about to divulge all the details on how the operating system works.
However, the system clearly intercepts and alters the output of the yaw rate sensor – which is easy enough to do with an analog sensor. But much more tricky is the way in which it intercepts CAN bus data so as to alter the instructions being sent between vehicle ECUs.
In fact, we’re not aware of any other company doing anything similar anywhere in the world.
Cost and Vehicles
The Whiteline Black Box costs just AUD$950, complete with installation. That is simply a phenomenal bargain and is at least 30 - 50 per cent cheaper than we’d expect.
It’s currently available for GM/Opel Astra Mk 4 (99-04), Holden Commodore VZ (when fitted with ESP), VE Commodore, and Nissan 350Z (Track with VDC). Soon to come is the MY08 Subaru Impreza STi.
By working with the standard car electronics rather than fighting against them, the Black Box takes car handling modification straight into this century. We think it’s a brilliant product that, for its functionality, is also superb value for money…
Whiteline makes it clear that they regard the Black Box as being sold for race track use only. From a legal perspective, that’s a reasonable approach to take - but we see the greatest potential for the system being on normal road cars.
If you’re unfamiliar with electronic modification of cars, changing the action of the stability control system might seem terribly dangerous and risky. But, in plain speak, that’s simply bullshit.
Modifying any aspect of a car’s handling characteristics – even something as simple as fitting new anti-roll bars – means you have chosen to step away from the factory-developed package, with both the benefits and disadvantages that result from doing so.
A car with a big rear anti-roll bar can be lethal in wet conditions; a car with lowered suspension might bottom-out badly enough on poor roads to crack the suspension mounts; even fitting just stiffer bushes can result in more road noise and vibration.
If you have the Black Box fitted and then decide one dark wet night to go out with a bunch of mates to find a local roundabout and do some random real-time tuning of the device – well, you’ll probably crash. Just as you would have crashed if you’d fitted lots of different springs and then tested in the same way.
We see absolutely no problem with the Black Box being fitted to a road car and tuned on the road. However, such an approach needs to be done in a careful, systematic and considered way. Do it like an idiot and the risks are high – just like they’ve always been. Do it properly and we can’t see any issues.
Oh yes, except one.
We doubt whether insurance companies will like the Black Box, so if you chose to have the device fitted, you should realise the insurance implications.
As this article was launched, news came that Black Box development and sales have moved to a new company, eEmotiv. Still headed by Jim Gurieff, the man behind the Black Box development at Whiteline, the Black Box is available in Version 1.1, with Version 2 in development. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org