Electronics have replaced a lot of things in your car. Among the items is the humble parking brake, which is otherwise known as a handbrake, footbrake, or emergency brake. Most manufacturers refer to it as an electronic parking brake, while some enthusiasts call it a drifting mechanism.
In whatever case, it is much different now in modern cars. We’re beginning to see fewer mechanical control interfaces on new vehicles, but is progress really all that it is cut out to be? Are we ready to say goodbye to the mechanical parking brake? Let’s go over a few pros and cons about both.
How parking brakes work
If you’ve ever seen how a drum brake works, that’s essentially how the parking brake works. You have brake shoes and a piston that pushes the shoes against the walls of the drum locking in place and creating friction that will hold or lock the rear wheels. Usually, you may find these types of brakes in the more affordable models or the more utility-driven models in the market, like the Toyota Wigo, or some utility vehicles like the Mitsubishi L300.
In manual parking brakes, the driver interacts with a mechanical lever that links to the rear brake via a steel cable. After the pedal is depressed, a ratcheting mechanism locks the lever in place. The placement of the lever will depend on the manufacturer’s design and can take the form of a footbrake or a handbrake. Handbrakes are more commonly seen on cars, however, a footbrake is rarer as it can be found mostly in cars that are automatic only because the clutch pedal takes up the leftmost part of the driver’s footwell, where the pedal for the footbrake usually resides.
Electronic parking brakes use the same principle, but instead of a mechanical lever and cable, engaging the parking brake is done through a switch, which then activates the electronic motor which then allows the rear brake shoes or pads to contact the rear drum or disc of the vehicle.
Manual parking brake
Some enthusiasts will say that the traditional e-brake is the best because it is another interface to help control the car, and the mechanical nature and feel of the traditional parking brake is something that even non-enthusiasts prefer. Aside from preference, manual brakes are just easier to service and repair if something goes wrong, and the lever system is practically bulletproof because of how simple it is designed. Parts are pretty easy to find, and pretty much anyone can fix a manual brake, not that there’s a lot of parts to break in the first place.
In emergency situations, if your front brakes do go bad on you, and you need to come to an emergency stop, the bigger control interface of a manual parking brake will be easier to reach or grab in a panic. Grabbing a lever or depressing a pedal in an emergency situation is much easier than hunting for a little switch that will allow you to come to a stop safely, and the actuation of a manual parking brake is more or less one to one.
Perhaps the main disadvantage of a manual brake is the driver. Because there is a human element thrown in the mix, there is a chance that when the situation calls for it, a panicked emergency brake pull may lock the rear wheels, possibly sending the car out of control. When you operate an emergency brake, you need to be able to modulate it properly. You need to be able to control and slowly increase the pressure on your rear brakes in order to stop from a high speed.
There is also the issue of maintenance. Steel cables, like the ones used in most parking brakes, do stretch out over time, meaning that you may have to get your parking brake serviced every so often. The cable itself must be tensioned in order for the rear pads to come into contact with the disc or drum of the rear brake system. You may find that the cable will need replacement after a while.
Electronic parking brake
Electronic parking brakes are without a doubt, more consistent when it actuates compared to a manual parking brake or e-brake. Because an electronic motor performs the action, you get more consistent brake engagement that is connected to the ABS system which means that you will be able to keep your car stable if you do need to stop at high speeds. You also get a nice whirring sound when the brake engages instead of that traditional ratcheting sound, though that’s a subjective advantage for some.
Another advantage is that maintenance is almost non-existent compared to a manual parking brake. Since you have an electronic motor instead of a manual lever and a cable, you don’t have to touch the brake system so much, unless something malfunctions or breaks.
Convenience and feedback are the two final advantages of electronic parking brakes. Because it is connected to the ECU of the car, you can have the parking brake engaged, put your car into gear, and once the vehicle senses that it is moving, the brake disengages automatically. Also, the inclusion of an electronic parking brake allows manufacturers to install a feature called Auto Brake Hold. Whenever you come to a stop with the feature on, the brake system engages holding you in place. Like the electronic parking brake, once you give it a bit of gas, you can set off without doing a little pedal dance.
Lastly, you get a bit more style and cleanliness in the interior. While this can be remedied with a foot brake, just having a switch in the center console is much cleaner-looking than a big lever sticking out possibly robbing you of a bit of cabin space for your armrest.
Perhaps the main disadvantage of the electronic parking brake is the size of the switch. It’s not as large as a lever or pedal, which means that it may be tougher to engage the brake while in a panic or in an emergency situation. This goes back to the fact that the touch target is a tiny little switch that could be mistaken for another function in the car’s center console. Also, since it is a break away from the traditional, most people might be unfamiliar with how an electronic parking brake works in the first place.
Another disadvantage is the repair of an electronic parking brake system. If the motor conks out or breaks, then you have the problem of getting the right part from the manufacturer to fix it. Apart from that, the replacement of the will involve quite a bit more money. Cables are inexpensive, and tensioning your cable in a manual brake pretty much free, but replacing a broken brake motor will get expensive.
Although, who can forget the most disadvantageous disadvantage of an electronic parking brake, which is no handbrake turns. While it is dangerous to do, and we don’t advise it, enthusiasts will be kind enough to let us know that having an electronic parking brake will not allow you to do that sick maneuver, that we don’t condone in any way shape, or form.
So which is better, and are electronic parking brakes worth it? The answer to that is yes. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages at least for us. Convenience and reliability rank high with the electronic brake so too does safety and consistency, which are required if you will need to do some emergency braking. On top of that, you don’t always need to readjust your brake cable like a traditional hand brake, and it gives more space in the cabin allowing manufacturers to design an interior that is a bit more clean-looking.
We cannot, however, deny that the manual parking brake still has its place. We’d much rather have a manual handbrake system in a car like a Mazda MX-5, or a low-slung sportscar like the Toyota 86. For commuter vehicles, we would rather have more space near the driver’s seat so we don’t have to worry about accidentally hitting the lever. Though we are also starting to see electronic hand brakes in sportier cars like the Toyota Supra, where space comes at a premium.
All in all, the electronic parking brake seems to be here to stay, and the fact that it also offers convenience features on top of its other benefits make it an extra pitch to use in the showroom. It is not, however, that big of a dealbreaker. In whatever case, either system presents its pros and cons and as the vehicle owner, you should adjust accordingly as to what system you have in your automobile.