What is an electronic handbrake?

No more straining to yank up a lever: cars with an electronic handbrake require just the press of a button - but aren't to everyone's taste

BuyaCar team
Mar 24, 2021

If you haven't sat inside a relatively new car for a while, you're likely to have a bit of a shock when you realise quite how much has changed if you're used to driving your old reliable Mk.5 VW Golf.

While the automatic gearbox has been around for a while now, that automation has slowly begun to spread around the rest of the car. You often don't even have to turn a key anymore; you just push a button instead to get the engine started. But one other thing that has been turned into a button is the handbrake.

Gone are the days when you'd pull the lever and manual apply the handbrake, many modern cars simply require you to flip a switch where the lever used to be and electronics will brake the car for you. This is also handily applied to other aspect of driving such as hill starts, where the car will automatically hold itself for you while you pull away.

This new innovation will be welcomed by those who will trust an electronic system more than a manual mechanism with the potential to wear over time. However there will of course be drivers who despise this move to automated driving and yearn for a more engaging and hands-on approach.

How does an electronic handbrake work?

The electronic handbrake 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 such as more modern versions of the Golf, and other popular family cars like the Ford Focus and Nissan Qashqai.

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 brake pads. Current versions are more sophisticated and use a pair of small, computer-controlled electric motors to operate the brakes.

Most systems are operated by the driver flicking an switch to apply the handbrake, but an further developments to the system mean that some cars now sense when you have come to a stop and apply the brakes automatically.

The switch will often have a light on it to indicate 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 should 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 in a vast majority of cars. Some, however, still hold the brakes, only releasing once you have pressed the button and waited for the system to deactivate.

The earliest versions of electric handbrakes have already been outdated by technological advances, so it's worth bearing in mind that some electric systems might have a small delay of up to a couple of seconds to full engage the brakes after the switch is pressed.


βœ” More convenient and reliable
βœ” Frees up space for extra storage
βœ” Easier to use


✘ More complex and expensive to repair
✘ Drivers may miss analogue controls
✘ Can be slow to engage

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.

Beware, too, that with a number of systems unless you've pressed the brake pedal reasonably firmly when you've come to a stop, the system may not engage. In these cases you may think the car is held, but it may not be, potentially causing it to roll either way without you realising - an unlikely situation if you had a manual handbrake - which could potentially result in the car rolling into something. It's best to double check that the light to show the system is engaged has lit up on the dials.

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 the end of the lever, it can be released. Press the button in and the lever can quickly be engaged or disengaged, with hill starts being achieved by moderating the speed you release the handbrake with the speed you disengage the clutch and press the accelerator in a manual gearbox car or simply the accelerator in an automatic.

Lever handbrakes can be found in most older cars but some models including many Mercedes cars and several Lexus models, feature an under-dash lever or foot-operated brake. In the case of the former, this can be less awkward to use than a handbrake but inexperienced drivers can find it hard to control. It’s released by pulling a lever near the dashboard.

Meanwhile, foot-operated handbrakes feature a stiffly-sprung small pedal to the left of the brake or clutch pedal. These can be particularly awkward to use, since there can be a lot of travel in some pedals, requiring you to bend your leg substantially to operate.


βœ” More intuitive than electronics
βœ” Better feeling of driver control
βœ” Easier and cheaper to maintain


✘ Hill-starts can be daunting
✘ Old-fashioned and clunky
✘ Takes up space in the centre console


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