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

John Evans
Dec 3, 2020

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

Instead of struggling with a lever connected to cables that may have stretched over time - meaning the car may not firmly hold itself in place - you just flick a switch and electric motors do the rest with an electronic handbrake. Some also have a so-called auto-hold function that takes the stress out of hill starts by automatically holding the brakes until you pull off. 

The buttons aren't universally popular, with many drivers preferring the familiar manual handbrake that they can pull and engage instantly, rather than an electronic system, which can seem less secure and sometimes take a second or two to engage - or simply prove far more fiddly for those with long nails. Below we look at the pros and cons of both types of handbrake.

How does an electronic parking brake work?

This type of 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 has begun to replace the manual handbrake in a vast majority of new cars.

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. 

Some systems are operated by the driver flicking an electric switch, but increasingly, this type of 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 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.

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 stalling at the lights they may panic. Some can also be slow to engage - taking a second or two when manually a release a handbrake takes barely any time at all.


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.

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. With no electronics to engage or disengage the brakes, it makes manoeuvring when parking very simple. If you want to move slightly forward or roll backwards on an incline this can be much simpler than trying to do the same with an electronic handbrake - especially if auto-hold is on. 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 may roll back, some drivers may burn out the clutch, stall the engine or lurch dangerously forward. Some handbrakes can be awkward to operate and take up space on the console between driver and passenger, reducing space for cupholders or other cubby holes.

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