Overview: Ford’s Hill Start Assist
Ford’s Hill Start Assist is a feature that automatically holds a car in place when it detects that the car is resting on a hill. It’s designed to prevent the car from rolling and the driver from having to quickly get their foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal. As a general term, this technology is often called “hill-holder” or “hill control” and has become prevalent across the auto industry.
This technology has been included on various Ford models since 2011, for both automatic and manual transmissions. However, its effects are much more noticeable on cars that feature stick shifts, such as the Mustang, Fiesta, and Focus. Hill Start Assist was offered on manual transmission Mustangs beginning in 2013.
Automatic vs. Manual Transmission on Hills
Most cars with an automatic transmission are not actually in neutral if the car is stopped while the shifter is set to “drive.” As soon as you take your foot off the brake, the car will begin to slowly move forward, assuming you’re on level ground or a descending incline. On a moderately-angled hill facing upwards, the crawl will counteract gravity to the point where your vehicle stands completely still. And if you’re on a steep enough upward grade, your car will roll backward. Each of these scenarios assumes that the brake pedal is not depressed.
Cars with a manual transmission are different though, and the effects of Ford’s Hill Start Assist are much more noticeable when the system is engaged. Because any movement from a stop must begin with engaging the clutch, the drive wheels will not be connected to the engine. During every acceleration from a stop, at least for a split second, the car will be in a neutral position and subject to the forces of gravity. When starting from a hill, that means you’ll experience a backwards lurch before the clutch catches and the car starts moving forward, which can be disorienting or unnerving for new drivers and unwitting passengers.
On especially steep hills (think San Francisco or an inclined mountain road), drivers may elect to perform a handbrake start. By keeping the emergency brake engaged, they can avoid doing the foot dance from brake pedal to gas pedal, and simply release the emergency brake once they get on the gas and start moving. This is another practice that takes a non-negligible amount of skill but is generally not needed on a car utilizing a hill assist feature.
Effects of Hill Start Assist
The “hill-hold” or Hill Start Assist feature will recognize that you’re stopped on an incline and “hold” the brakes for a short while to give you more time to move your foot from the brake to the gas to start moving. Ford’s system typically lasts just two to three seconds, and although this may not seem like much time, it’s actually plenty to get the car in motion. The brakes will then disengage once the user depresses the accelerator pedal. Many automatic transmission cars have this feature as well, but due to their nature, it’s not nearly as noticeable unless you’re hauling a very heavy load behind you or stopped on a particularly steep incline.
Some enthusiasts criticize the system as being just another unnecessary nanny-tech feature, arguing that “real” drivers can get themselves going from a hill unaided. However, fans of the system note that it’s useful for those (hopefully) rare times when you can’t maneuver the gas pedal and clutch quite right, and it can save wear on your clutch plate. The overall trade-off is convenience and improved safety, at the expense of what could be considered the loss of a more connected and authentic driving experience.
For what it’s worth, although the Hill Start Assist does take some time getting used to if you’ve been driving stick shift cars without it, it’s just a small part of the driving experience that eventually becomes normal. If you’re still not a fan after giving it a try, simply go to your car’s settings and turn the feature off. Just be sure to remember which mode you leave your car in!
Image Credit: Ford Australia