Cars with an electronic handbrake

No more straining to lift a lever: cars with an electronic handbrake require just a button press - but they aren't popular with everyone

John Evans
Jul 31, 2018

If you never quite trust the handbrake to hold your car or you lack the strength to pull the lever sufficiently firmly, you’ll welcome an electronic parking brake.

Instead of struggling with an awkward lever whose cables may have stretched, you just flick a switch and electric motors do the rest. Some also have a so-called auto-hold function that takes the stress out of hill starts. 

The buttons aren't universally popular, with many drivers preferring the familiar manual handbrake that they click and engage, rather than an electronic system, which can seem less secure. Below we look at the pros and cons of both types of handbrake.

How does an electronic parking brake work?

This system has been around since 2001 when it first featured on the BMW 7 series. For many years it was the preserve of expensive cars but is now more common on cheaper vehicles and beginning to replace the manual handbrake.

Early systems were a variation on the old manual handbrake and used a small electric motor to pull the cables attached to the rear brake shoes or disc pads. Current versions are more sophisticated and use a pair of small, computer-controlled electric motors to operate the brakes. 

Some systems are operated by the driver flicking an electric switch but increasingly, the system senses when the car has come to a stop and applies the brakes automatically.
The switch may have a light on it telling you it’s been activated or you may hear a slight whirring at the back of the car as the motors work. Either way, the handbrake warning light will illuminate on the dashboard, telling you the car is secure.

When you want to drive away you press the footbrake while flicking the switch to release the parking brake, or simply press the accelerator and the brakes are released automatically.

For By using a switch and two powerful motors working on the brakes, an electronic parking brake takes the effort and worry out of using a handbrake. It’s a neat, space-saving solution that frees up room for cupholders and other storage ideas on the centre console between driver and passenger. It’s also easier to use when there’s a front centre armrest.

Against An electronic parking brake is a complex piece of equipment that can’t be maintained without the right tools. When it fails, it can be expensive to repair. Some drivers miss not being able to progressively apply or release the brakes as they can with a conventional handbrake. Others think it counter-intuitive to flick a switch rather than pull or push a lever, with the result that in high-pressure situations such as a stall they may panic.


How does an auto-hold parking brake work?

This is an added feature on some electronic parking brakes. Using the car’s anti-lock brake technology, it senses when the vehicle has come to a stop and continues to apply the brakes, even after you have taken your foot off the brake pedal. It retains the same braking pressure but if the system detects the car is rolling backwards, it applies additional force to secure it.

This is especially useful in a hill start situation. To move off, you simply press the accelerator if your car is an automatic or, if it is a manual, release the clutch. The brakes are released automatically.

However, it can be irritating when you;re manoeuvring into a parking position. When you stop to change between reverse and forward gears, the handbrake often engages automatically. If you then try and roll into a space without pressing the accelerator, the car won't move; adding power can be jerky. In these situations, it's often best to switch the system off.


How does a manual handbrake work?

A manual handbrake comprises a lever which, via long steel cables, pulls on the car’s rear brakes. A ratchet locks the handbrake in place and by means of a button at its end, it can be released.
Lever handbrakes can be found in most older cars but in many Mercedes cars, a foot-operated brake is used. It’s less awkward to use than a handbrake but inexperienced users can find it hard to control. It’s released by pulling a lever near the dashboard.

Assuming it’s in good working order and conveniently placed, it’s easy to progressively brake or release the car as you wish. By balancing the handbrake with the clutch and accelerator, experienced drivers can perform hill starts without allowing the car to roll back or slipping the clutch.
Because it’s essentially just a lever and cables acting on the brakes, a manual handbrake is easy to maintain.

Not everyone can master the art of hill starts using a handbrake with the result that the car rolls back, they burn out the clutch, stall the engine or lurch dangerously forward.
A handbrake can be awkward to operate and takes up valuable space on the console between driver and passenger.

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