David MottonSee other Advice articles filed in ‘Tow cars’ written by David Motton
Some of us enjoy towing – others find it the most stressful part of caravanning. Whichever camp you fall into, there’s a wide range of gadgets and devices to make towing safer and easier. Whether you are looking for a new car or caravan with all the latest developments, or would like to upgrade your current outfit, here’s our guide to the technology that will improve your experience of towing.
More stable caravans
Perhaps the most significant caravan safety innovation of recent years has been the introduction of trailer stability systems to caravans. Al-Ko, which manufactures the chassis for the majority of UK-made tourers (including Swifts and Baileys, and most current Elddis caravans), has the ATC Trailer Control System. BPW, which supplies the chassis for the Elddis Buccaneer (and, until the 2015 model year, underpinned all Elddis models) has intelligent Drive Control (iDC).
Think of these systems as the caravan equivalent of stability control on your car. They’re designed to combat the dreaded ‘snake’, when a caravan begins to swing from one side to the other. ATC and iDC both have sensors that detect this side-to-side movement, and apply the caravan’s brakes to bring the tourer back into line.
If you tow with a tourer fitted with either system, once in a while you may notice a gentle pull from the caravan, perhaps when overtaking an HGV or when caught by a crosswind. The braking effect soon passes and you can continue unimpeded.
These systems are now common on high-spec caravans and some mid-range models. Al-Ko ATC can be retrofitted to a caravan at the company’s UK headquarters in Warwickshire (for £587), by its mobile fitment service (for an additional £100) or at an approved service centre (prices will vary).
Compatible BPW chassis (any chassis with the ZAF-2 hitch launched in 2005) can also have the iDC system added. Costs vary, but expect to pay in the region of £800 to have iDC retrofitted.
Both systems are designed to work with a hitch stabiliser. In recent years, these have become commonplace, even on budget caravans. Towball-mounted stabilisers are the most common type, the Al-Ko 3004 being the one you’ll see fitted to most recent UK caravans. However, Al-Ko is by no means the only show in town: BPW produces the iSC safety coupling, which is compatible with other makes of caravan chassis as well as with BPW chassis.
The hitch stabiliser clamps the towball by means of friction pads, which resist the movement of the hitch on the towball. The resistance isn’t so great that it’s hard to make turns or manoeuvre at low speeds, but it is sufficient to dampen down any unwanted side-to-side movements.
Like the stability systems working on the van’s brakes, stabiliser hitches can be retrofitted to caravans that don’t have them as standard equipment. Just be sure there’s enough clearance around the towball for the hitch head – check the stabiliser’s handbook for the clearance requirements.
If you don’t have a hitch stabiliser, a caravan dealer should be able to fit one for you. Or, if you’re handy with a spanner, fitting a stabiliser hitch is a worthwhile DIY upgrade.
More stable tow cars
Of course, the caravan is only one part of the equation. The towing technology fitted to new tow cars is also improving.
Stability control is now compulsory on all new cars sold in Europe. There’s a whole alphabet soup of acronyms for it (ESC, ESP, DSC to name just three) but, whatever labels are applied to them, the different stability control systems perform a similar function.
When sensors detect a loss of steering control, stability control can brake each wheel individual depending on the type of instability that is being counteracted. Braking the outer front wheel will reduce oversteer (when the back of the car slides wide in a corner) while braking the inner rear wheel will reduce understeer (when the front of the car slides wide). Some systems also reduce engine power.
One study has suggested that stability control has saved 6100 lives across the EU since 1995.
It has a role to play when towing, too. Research by Bailey, The Caravan Club and the University of Bath published as long ago as 2007 has shown that stability control can reduce the severity of snaking movements when towing.
Now, many cars go a step further and have a Trailer Stability Program (TSP), sometimes called Trailer Stability Assist or Trailer Sway Control. Despite being given its own name, this system is part of the car’s stability control rather than being an entirely separate safety device.
As a caravan or trailer begins to snake, it pulls at the back of the tow car. TSP recognises this yaw movement early, applies the brakes individually and reduces engine torque to correct the yawing motion.
TSP works if the car’s stability control ‘knows’ that it is towing, so it’s important to use a vehicle-specific wiring kit that will allow the caravan and towing vehicle to communicate.
Making towing easier
While the likes of ATC and TSP make towing safer, other new technology is aimed at making the driver’s life that bit easier.
The system combines Park Assist (which helps park in everyday driving) with a rear-view camera. The driver selects the angle and direction of the turn using the door mirror adjuster as a joystick. Trailer Assist makes a small initial steering input to allow the system to gauge the wheelbase of the caravan by observing the angle of the hitch and using ingenious image-processing algorithms. It then steers the car through the manoeuvre, as the driver controls the speed.
It’s very clever stuff, although the driver still has to show some skill and judgement in choosing when to start the turn. That said, you can partially adjust the steering by using the door mirror adjuster. Even when using Trailer Assist, reversing is safer if you have someone outside the car to look out for objects the caravan may obscure.
If and when Land Rover’s ‘Transparent Trailer’ concept becomes a reality, that may not be necessary. Revealed at the 2015 Burghley Horse Trials, Transparent Trailer uses the vehicle’s reversing camera and cameras in each wing mirror, together with a camera mounted on the back of the trailer or caravan. The video feeds are combined to create an image of what’s behind the outfit, displayed on the rear-view mirror, giving the illusion that the caravan is invisible. We’ve tried a prototype system, and it has great potential for both low-speed manoeuvring and driving on the open road.
The DIY option
The Transparent Trailer system may be very sophisticated, but you can create a poor man’s version at home for a fraction of what Land Rover may charge. Plenty of aftermarket rear-view cameras are available for cars and are relatively inexpensive (say, £80-£250), especially if you fit the camera yourself. A wireless system with sufficient range could be fitted to the back of a caravan and displayed through a monitor in the car. Or, if mounted to the back of the car, such a system can provide a good view of the towball and the front of the caravan for easy hitching up.
Trailer Vision camera systems cost more than some (from £329.99 for a camera and monitor), but are designed specifically for motorhomes and caravans, and promise clear, full-colour monitors and interference-free images. Monitors can be used with more than one camera to show different views – for example, the towball when hitching up plus whatever is behind the caravan.
Tech and safety
Whether you go for a new car and caravan with all the latest gadgets, or make installing aftermarket alternatives a weekend project, technology is making towing safer and less nerve-racking.
Still, all the technology in the world doesn’t replace sensible loading, appropriate speed and careful driving. The most important safety feature is still the one in the driver’s seat.