What is an electronic handbrake?

Manufacturers constantly strive to make everyday driving easier for their customers, and an example of this is the electronic handbrake. Many manufacturers are replacing the usual lever-operated system with a more modern and less labour-intensive equivalent.

How does an electronic parking brake work?

A traditional handbrake is very simple – pull the lever up and you pull two cables which run to each of the rear brakes. By adding tension to these cables, the brake pads or shoes squeeze against the discs (or drums) to hold the rear wheels firmly in place. Some cars with disc brakes have separate handbrake drum-brake shoes or even a separate disc-brake caliper for the handbrake.

Put simply, an electronic parking brake replaces this mechanical system with an electrical one. By pressing the switch, motors on each brake caliper squeeze the pads into the disc. You’ll hear a reassuring whirring of the motors as the button is pressed (or pulled), meaning that you know that the car is held safely, which isn’t always a guarantee with a regular handbrake – it’s especially reassuring if you’re towing.

To release the electronic parking brake, simply attempt to drive off and it will automatically disengage – usually! Sometimes when you first start the car you’ll have to put your foot on the brake and push (or pull) the electronic handbrake switch to take it off – this can also happen when you try to reverse. After that you’ll normally just be able to drive away to deactivate it.

Who uses them?

There are many manufacturers who make the most of this tech. The first production car to implement the tech was the BMW 7-Series back in 2001, and many BMWs still use the system now. Other manufacturers such as Jaguar/Land Rover, Renault, Subaru, Volkswagen, Audi and Vauxhall all sell models with electronic parking brakes, too.

Any drawbacks?

If you’re a keen home mechanic you may be disappointed – because the handbrake operates electrically, you’ll need to visit a professional to have your brake pads changed. Usually, you’ll need a (rather expensive) diagnostic laptop to open up the brake calipers so you can remove the pads.

From a very juvenile point of view, electronic handbrakes make handbrake turns impossible, so late night fun in snow-filled car parks will be a thing of the past. You certainly won’t be doing anything like Sébastien Ogier in his Volkswagen Polo WRC below. Not that we approve of that sort of thing.

Anything else I need to consider?

Many cars with electronic handbrakes include a hill-hold function, which stops the car from rolling back on steep gradients. This means you’ll be able to pull away smoothly every time.

Some models – especially more modern Volkswagens – have an auto hold feature. This detects when you’ve arrived at a junction or set of traffic lights and holds the brakes for you. The instant you drop the clutch and start to accelerate, the brakes are released.

Are they worth it?

They certainly have their benefits. Electronic handbrakes hold more firmly than regular cable-operated brakes, and because there is (usually) no physical cable which can stretch over time, there’s less adjustment needed – so you’re much less likely to find your car scooting backwards off your sloped driveway in the night.

They simplify the interior of cars too. By removing a large lever from the centre console, more room is freed up for other things, such as extra storage space, cup holders, or even more buttons!

The handbrake is a hugely important system, so it’s only natural that newfangled electrical versions are treated with suspicion. However, the electronic parking brake really is one of those things that quickly becomes second nature – just like all the best gadgets.

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