What is Launch Control, and How Does it Work?

Launch control is an advanced driving assistance system (ADAS) found in sports cars and other performance-oriented vehicles that helps facilitate quick acceleration from a standing start. Familiar ADAS are explicitly geared towards safety assistance, like blind-spot warning and lane-keeping assistance. On the other hand, launch control is designed to produce the maximum amount of power and traction for a vehicle to accelerate from a stop as quickly as possible. While the “control” part of its name has a safety aspect, the emphasis is on the “launch” and subsequent zero-to-60 mph times.

2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon Red Launch Control Front Quarter View

What is Launch Control?

Many new carstrucks, and SUVs have selectable drive modes. Typically available as Eco, Comfort, and Sport, other modes can include Smart, Sport+, and Individual. With the push of a button, a driver can adjust how a vehicle handles based on changing road conditions or preferences. Each mode is calibrated to alter gearing, throttle response, suspension settings, steering feel, and traction control.

For example, Eco will change the gear ratios and powerband to optimize fuel economy but provide a less-than-exciting driving experience. Sport mode will increase throttle response and stiffen the suspension. You’ll have more fun behind the wheel in Sport mode, but you’ll also spend more time refueling.

And then, you have specialized modes in which high-performance calibrations for specific drive scenarios come into play. They’re often given names like Race, Drift, or other racetrack-inspired monikers like Nürburgring.

How does launch control incorporate these launch modes? As a sort of add-on. Not a drive mode, per se, launch control is specially calibrated tuning meant to alter a vehicle’s response and performance for a given driving situation. In this case, maximum acceleration from a standing start.

How Does Launch Control Work?

In a drag race, getting off the line faster than your competition is as important as how much power the engine has. In this scenario, wheel spin is the enemy. Suppose your opponent’s vehicle has minimal wheel spin while you’re doing an unintentional burnout at the starting line. In that case, your 800 horsepower won’t matter if their 700-hp car is halfway down the straightaway by the time your tires grip.

Launch control not only minimizes wheel spin (and hop) but also helps manage torque, throttle, and gear settings to prevent vehicle damage. Without launch control, there is a higher probability of over-revving the engine and overheating the transmission.

How to Activate Launch Control

Activation can be as simple as pressing a button. Or at least that’s how the sequence starts. In a BMW M car, the engine will need to be warmed up, dynamic stability control turned off, and the automatic transmission set to sequential mode with the vehicle in first gear. Then it goes something like this:

  • Press on the brake and hold
  • Press down on accelerator until kick down and hold
  • Wait until a start flag appears in the driver information panel
  • Regulate the rpm and starting speed
  • Release the brake while maintaining kick down
  • The clutch/gear then engages, and off you go!

It’s a similar process for Dodge Hellcat vehicles, with instructional guidance also displayed on the vehicle information center. A slight variation is required with the dearly departed Challenger SRT Demon, which has a transbrake feature. Using the paddle shifter to activate the launch control, the transbrake locks the vehicle’s output shaft and allows for a brake-free launch. Otherwise, the initiation sequence remains the same.

Summary

While it is a fun feature, launch control is more about earning bragging rights than serving any real-world purpose. Outside of professional motorsports, many local track weekends prohibit the use of launch control. Also, while driving in town, there’s no point in generating multitudes of power simply to speed from one red light to another—in addition to all the other things that can go wrong with sheer, unbridled acceleration.

 So, when should launch control be used? Basically, in a controlled environment like a sanctioned drag race. For the most part, the technology offers automakers marketing fodder so they can boast “fastest in the world” times. Like Dodge’s claim that its Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye is the fastest mass-production sedan with a 203-mph top speed and 10.6-second quarter mile. And the Tesla Model S Plaid being the quickest vehicle, period, with a zero-to-60 mph of less than 2 seconds.

Claims aside, at the very least, launch control can prevent you from literally burning through tires too quickly.