John bemoans the impending loss of a motoring staple
John bemoans the loss of the mechanical handbrake in cars.
Apress release landed in my email inbox. As far as new cars are concerned, it said, the conventional manual handbrake will soon be dead. Just 37 per cent of new car models on sale today have an actual lever that you pull up to brake the rear wheels (in some cases the front wheels) for parking purposes.
The new normal is usually a button you press to engage the parking brake and hook upwards to release it. With most of them, though, you don’t have to do anything at all. When the car is stationary and its engine is turned off, the brake automatically engages. When you want to move off, the system senses the torque build-up in the transmission and releases the brake.
The system often incorporates a hill-holder, too, so you don’t need the handbrake for a hill start. It automatically prevents the car rolling back after you release the footbrake, for a few seconds at least, giving you time to press the accelerator as you engage the clutch. Actually, it’s usually line pressure in the brake hydraulics that performs this function, but it comes as part of the electronic handbrake package.
It all sounds really good in theory. These systems were seen first on luxury cars, mostly with automatic transmission. Claimed advantages beyond the obvious one of perceived convenience were that losing the manual lever made space in the cabin for extra storage, and that not having a hard lever by a seat made the cabin safer in a side impact, because you wouldn’t bash into the lever.
But the electric brake is binary – it’s either on or off, with no half measures – and you can’t feel an instant cause-and-effect as you activate it. These characteristics can make close-quarters manoeuvring, such as reversing into a tight uphill parking space, nerve-wrackingly clumsy, especially in a manual-transmission car.
Then there’s the fact that most drivers don’t bother to engage it when sitting waiting at traffic lights, preferring instead to keep the right foot on the footbrake. So, more than ever, drivers behind them in the traffic queue are dazzled by high-level LED brake lights.
Because of the degree of automation they can offer, electric parking brakes have several failsafe systems. For example, in some cars they automatically engage when the driver’s door is open, ending any chance of looking along the rear flank of your car as you try to back up against a low
John Simister has been at the heart of British motoring journalism for more than 30 years. A classic enthusiast, he owns a Saab 96 and Sunbeam Stiletto.
wall. With some systems the brake won’t release unless you’re belted in. Pushing the car with the ignition off is generally impossible, too, because the switch will be disabled. And if your battery is flat, the car becomes immovable.
There are two common systems of electronic parking brake. One uses conventional handbrake cables but replaces the old-fashioned lever with a motorised drum, which reels in or releases the cables as required. The other sort, a neater solution but much harder to override, has a geared motor in each rear brake caliper, acting on the caliper piston.
Both systems can go wrong, expensively, and both usually require computer-diagnostics-driven fixes when they do, although workarounds do exist.
Electronic parking brakes are a revenue-earning solution to a problem that never existed, and they chip away at the need for what should be a basic driving skill. They encourage thoughtless driving, they further distance the driver from the physical feedback, and they make the DIY mechanic’s job harder. Handbrake turns, tidy ones at least, are off the menu too, should you be so inclined.
So, why are they so popular? Probably because not to have one is viewed as low-tech. One day, this magazine’s Workshop section will have to explain how to overhaul the electronic parking brake, which will follow queries in Ask Our Experts about how to move an electrically-braked car with a flat battery.
I predict it will happen soon. The first car I drove with an EPB was a VW Passat in 2005. That’s 13 years ago: almost on the edge of PC eligibility.
B5 Passat was one of the first cars with the now common EPB system.
Up for off, down for on. It’s all so counter-intuitive.