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

Andrew Goodwin
Nov 8, 2021

If you haven't driven a new car for some time, it could come as a bit of a surprise when you reach down to your left to grab the handbrake, and instead, get a handful of thin air. That's because many new models are fitted with an automatic handbrake as standard, with no option of a manual lever.

Yes, automation may have been fairly common for gearboxes for decades, but now it is popping up almost everywhere. Engine start buttons, powered boot opening, and now electric handbrakes are all designed to make life easier and safer.

Gone are the days when you'd pull the lever and manually 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 - some even detect when you've stopped automatically. The technology can also make hill starts far easier because the car will automatically hold itself still for you while you pull away.

This new innovation will be welcomed by those who appreciate the convenience and the extra space between the front seats. However, there will of course be drivers who despise this move to automated driving and yearn for a more mechanical 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 a switch to apply the handbrake, but further developments to the system allow some cars to sense when the vehicle is stationary and apply the brakes automatically. This is usually called 'Auto-hold', and may have a dedicated button to activate it so the feature can be switched on or off.

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.

This typically glows red when the handbrake is fully engaged, but could also illuminate green to indicate the handbrake is automatically holding the car in position, such as in traffic or on a hill start.

When you want to drive away you press the footbrake while flicking the switch to release the parking brake, or simply pull away and the brakes are released automatically in cars with a newer system.

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 fully engage the brakes after the switch is pressed.

Pros

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

Cons

✘ 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 temporarily.

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 without you realising - an unlikely situation if you had a manual handbrake. Always double-check that the red handbrake indicator has lit up on the instrument panel. Some cars will also sound a warning alert or message if you attempt to turn the car off or get out without engaging the handbrake.

How does a manual handbrake work?

A manual handbrake comprises a lever that, 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 releasing the handbrake smoothly as you release the clutch and press the accelerator with a manual gearbox, or simply squeeze the accelerator with an automatic gearbox.

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.

Pros

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

Cons

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

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