What is Hill Start Assist technology?

Hill Start Assist Technology

Once upon a time, you’d have had to rely on a sturdy handbrake and your own impeccable clutch control for a smooth hill start—but now there’s technology to help mitigate human error. Many cars now come equipped with Hill Start Assist (sometimes known as Hill Hold Assist) which is there, quite literally, to catch you before you fall. It aims to make it easier to move off on a gradient but also claims to reduce your vehicle’s wear and tear.

We take a look at this feature and ask all the important questions: how does it work, what exactly are the benefits, and should you rely on it when you’re pulling off on an incline?

What does Hill Start Assist do?

When you’re performing a hill start, you need to get your feet into action pretty swiftly. This means switching your right foot from the brake to the accelerator and then pressing it just the right amount (while releasing your clutch) to allow you to move off. Hill Start Assist technology works by buying you some time. It essentially holds the brake for you for a few seconds, giving you time to transfer your feet into the right position and find your biting point.

Why are hill starts difficult?

A steep road in Spain, with cars sitting stationary on the hill
Image source: Manuel López via Unsplash

Sometimes you need to come to a stop on an incline. Either because you’re responding to the actions or inactions of other vehicles, or because there are traffic calming measures—like traffic lights—in place. You come to a stop just as you would on flat ground, by applying pressure to your brake and clutch. But here, the issue is setting off again after holding the car on this gradient.

One of the scariest things that can happen when you’re driving is starting to roll backwards on a hill. There are likely to be other road users behind you, and you risk not only hitting them but also setting off a chain reaction. To prevent this from happening, you need to make sure that you are competent in finding your biting point on hills.

Give the car plenty of revs, by putting enough pressure on the accelerator as you release the clutch. In the time it takes to move your foot from the brake pedal onto the accelerator and find your biting point—which will be different (more revs) than if you were on the flat—the car will be free to move of its own accord. And it’ll go where gravity dictates. If you’re facing uphill, that will be backwards and down.

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Why aren’t there car accidents on hills all the time then?

To mitigate the risk of rolling backwards on an incline, you would usually rely on the handbrake to hold you in place as you switch over your feet. On the flat, there’s no need to use the handbrake if you’re only going to stop for a very short time. But it’s useful to have this extra safety net on hills.

When should I use the handbrake?

One way to work out whether you should just apply the footbrake, or pull up the handbrake, is to think of your stop in terms of a comma or a full stop. Commas are there for short pauses in a sentence; full stops hit the reset button.

This is useful logic to apply when you’re driving on the flat. If you’re coming to a standstill but know you’re only going to be stationary for a second or two, then you can just use your normal foot brake. Even when you take your foot off the brake to accelerate, the car will remain roughly where it is  because the road doesn’t slope. Anything longer than this and you should give your feet a break by applying the handbrake and putting the car into neutral (taking it out of gear).

However, when you’re going uphill, you have to take into account the fact that gravity will want to pull your vehicle backwards. That’s why most people will feel more secure putting their handbrake on, even for short periods of stopping on an incline. The handbrake will hold the car for you while you get your biting point and are able to move off again.

What’s the point of Hill Start Assist if I already use my handbrake on hills?

A handbrake as seen through a car's window
Image source: Patrick Schöpflin via Unsplash

Hill Start Assist reduces wear and tear on other parts of your car, like your handbrake and clutch. Handbrakes are notorious for loosening over time, particularly if you live in a hilly area, where you’ll spend a lot of time stopping on gradients. While you can get your handbrake tightened, overuse reduces its lifespan. You can even snap the handbrake cable completely if you pull it up too aggressively.

Hill starts also put quite a bit of pressure on the performance of your clutch. If you hold your vehicle on its biting point too often, the clutch will start to wear out—and clutches are expensive to renew.

So, while Hill Start Assist is far from necessary, it will likely save you maintenance costs in addition to its other benefits.

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Do I still need to worry about clutch control?

Hill Start Assist doesn’t negate the need for excellent clutch control, because:
It’s not foolproof. It’s no good relying on any feature of your car 100%. You need to take responsibility for keeping in control by remaining alert at all times and staying calm under pressure.
It doesn’t last forever. Hill Start Assist is designed to counter a common human problem, but if you take too long to get your biting point, it will cease to hold the car for you. So long as you’re competent at finding your biting point on hills,  you shouldn’t have a problem.
Not all cars have it. When you’re buying your first car, you’ll probably be limited by price. This often correlates to both the age of the vehicle and the number of fancy features it has. Hill Start Assist might be something your first car doesn’t have.

What if I don’t have Hill Start Assist?

A small blue car without hill start assist being driven up a steep hill
Image source: Daniel Hansen via Unsplash

If your vehicle doesn’t benefit from Hill Start Assist technology, you’ll need to do things the old-fashioned way. Don’t worry—people have been doing hill starts without this extra security blanket for decades, so we have every faith that you can learn to do it too.

The key is using your handbrake effectively. Applying it will give you time to increase your rev count sufficiently before you pull away.

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Which cars have Hill Start Assist?

Plenty of modern cars have Hill Start Assist. However, it doesn’t always come as standard, meaning you may have to pay extra for the privilege and older cars are less likely to have it.

Hill Start Assist is most often found in cars with an automatic transmission, although not exclusively. Some manual vehicles do benefit from the feature.

How do I activate Hill Start Assist?

Hill Start Assist kicks in automatically when you stop on an incline, so you don’t need to remember to pull any extra levers or press any extra buttons. The technology is able to assess whether you’re on an incline and will respond accordingly.

Is Hill Start Assist technology good?

Hill Start Assist is a great feature, so long as you’re aware of its limitations. It’s not going to save you from huge mistakes, or negate you having to learn to do hill starts, but it will make life a little easier and give you some peace of mind. It’s a safety net (and a pretty handy one at that).

However, whether or not a vehicle has Hill Start Assist shouldn’t affect what type of car you learn to drive in. There are plenty of more important things to consider—and a good driving instructor, who can teach you how to do hill starts properly, is chief among them.

Will my learner car have Hill Start Assist?

Some learner cars will have Hill Start Assist; others won’t. It won’t make much difference to your learning experience, though. Either way, you need to become competent with the clutch. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that hill starts aren’t all that bad. It’s just a matter of practice.

⑤ Can I rely on Hill Start Assist on very steep inclines?

If you’re driving up a hill so steep that your normal brakes—foot or hand—wouldn’t hold you, then Hill Start Assist technology won’t help you out.

This especially applies to cases of extreme weather, like when an incline gets icy. In this situation you might slip down the hill again, should you come to a standstill. Since your normal braking mechanisms will fail in these circumstances, Hill Start Assist won’t protect you from rolling backwards.

Does Hill Start Assist only work on inclines?

More advanced versions of the technology also help to prevent you from rolling forwards down a decline. However, drivers tend to find downwards hill starts easier to navigate than hill starts on an incline, so there’s less need for extra technological assistance. The key is to go slowly enough to remain in control.

By Katie Scott

Katie grew up in the middle of nowhere, so knows the true value of getting behind the wheel. From the rules of the road to handy hints and tips, she'll give you the lowdown on all things driving. Always on the move, when she's not in the car, you'll probably find Katie darting around the squash courts or out running in the rainy British countryside.

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