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Learn about the Anti-Lock Brake System below, in the ABS section.
Simple Brake System

When you depress your brake pedal, your car transmits the force from your foot to its brakes through a fluid. Since the actual brakes require a much greater force than you could apply with your leg, your car must also multiply the force of your foot. A simple brake system that stops one wheel is shown at right.

You can see that the distance from the pedal to the pivot is four times the distance from the cylinder to the pivot, so the force at the pedal will be increased by a factor of four before it is transmitted to the cylinder. You can also see that the diameter of the brake cylinder is three times the diameter of the pedal cylinder. This further multiplies the force by nine. All together, this system increases the force of your foot by a factor of 36. If you put 10 pounds of force on the pedal, 360 pounds will be generated at the wheel squeezing the brake pads. This design allows stopping a large vehicle at high speeds with relative effortlessness on the part of the driver.

There are two basic types of brakes:

Disc Brakes

Disc Brake

On a disk brake, the fluid from the master cylinder is forced into a caliper where it presses against a piston. The piston, in-turn, squeezes two brake pads against the disk which is attached to the wheel, forcing it to slow down or stop. This process is similar to a bicycle brake where two rubber pads rub against the wheel rim creating friction. The main components of a disc brake are the brake pads, the caliper, which contains a piston, and the rotor, which is mounted to the wheel hub.

The disc brake is a lot like the brakes on a bicycle. Bicycle brakes have a caliper, which squeezes the brake pads against the wheel. In a disc brake, the brake pads squeeze the rotor instead of the wheel, and the force is transmitted hydraulically instead of through a cable. Friction between the pads and the disc slows the disc down. A moving car has a certain amount of kinetic energy, and the brakes have to remove this energy from the car in order to stop it. Each time you stop your car, your brakes convert the kinetic energy to heat generated by the friction between the pads and the disc. Most car disc brakes are vented; a set of vanes between the two sides of the disc pumps air through the disc to provide cooling.

Back to Types of Brakes

Drum Brakes

Drum brakes consist of a brake shoes, brake drum, return springs, and a self-adjusting system. When the brakes are applied, brake fluid is forced into the wheel cylinder which pushes the brake shoes into contact with the machined surface on the inside of the drum. When the pressure is released, return springs pull the shoes back to their rest position. As the brake linings wear, the shoes must travel a greater distance to reach the drum. When the distance reaches a certain point, a self-adjusting mechanism automatically reacts by adjusting the rest position of the shoes so that they are closer to the drum.

While all vehicles produced for many years have disk brakes on the front, drum brakes are cheaper to produce for the rear wheels. One of the main reasons is the parking brake system. On drum brakes, adding a parking brake is the simple addition of a lever; on disk brakes, a complete additional mechanism is needed, in some cases, a complete mechanical drum brake inside the disk brake rotor.

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For either type of brake, the friction surfaces of the pads on a disk brake system, or the shoes on a drum brake convert the forward motion of the vehicle into heat. Heat is what causes the friction surfaces (linings) of the pads and shoes to eventually wear out and require replacement.

Disc Brake Pad Wear Indicator

Many Brake Pads for disc brakes contain a piece of metal called the Wear Indicator. This piece is usually responsible for the annoying squeal that can be heard from disc brakes that will soon need pad replacement. The wear indicator is intended to be an early warning that it is time to replace the pads.

The most common service required for drum brakes is changing the brake shoes. Some drum brakes provide an inspection hole on the back side so that you can see how much material is left on the shoe.

Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS)

The most efficient braking pressure takes place just before each wheel locks up. When you slam on the brakes in a panic stop and the wheels lock up, causing a screeching sound and leaving strips of rubber on the pavement, you do not stop the vehicle nearly as short as it is capable of stopping. Also, while the wheels are locked up, you loose all steering control so that, if you have an opportunity to steer around the obstacle, you will not be able to do so. Another problem occurs during an extended skid is that you will burn a patch of rubber off the tire which causes a "flat spot" on the tread that will produce an annoying thumping sound as you drive. This spot will also be very weak, increasing chances of tire blow-out.

Anti-lock brake systems solve this lockup problem by rapidly pumping the brakes whenever the system detects a wheel that is locked up. In most cases, only the wheel that is locked will be pumped, while full braking  pressure stays available to the other wheels. This effect allows you to stop in the shortest amount of time while maintaining full steering control even if one or more wheels are on ice.  The system uses a computer to monitor the speed of each wheel. When it detects that one or more wheels have stopped or are turning much slower than the remaining wheels, the computer sends a signal to momentarily remove and reapply or pulse the pressure to the affected wheels to allow them to continue turning. This "pumping" of the brakes occurs at ten or more times a second, far faster then a human can pump the brakes manually.  If you step on the brakes hard enough to engage the anti-lock system, you may feel a strong vibration in the brake pedal. This is a normal condition and indicates that the system is working, however, it can be disconcerting to some people who don't expect it.  If your vehicle has anti-lock brakes, read your owner's manual to find out more about it.

ABS at Work

There are many different variations and control algorithms for ABS systems. We will discuss how one of the simpler systems works.

The controller monitors the speed sensors at all times. It is looking for decelerations in the wheel that are out of the ordinary. Right before a wheel locks up, it will experience a rapid deceleration. If left unchecked, the wheel would stop much more quickly than any car could. It might take a car five seconds to stop from 60 mph (96.6 kph) under ideal conditions, but a wheel that locks up could stop spinning in less than a second. The ABS controller knows that such a rapid deceleration is impossible, so it reduces the pressure to that brake until it sees an acceleration, then it increases the pressure until it sees the deceleration again. It can do this very quickly, before the tire can actually significantly change speed. The result is that the tire slows down at the same rate as the car, with the brakes keeping the tires very near the point at which they will start to lock up. This gives the system maximum braking power.

When the ABS system is in operation you will feel a pulsing in the brake pedal; this comes from the rapid opening and closing of the valves. Some ABS systems can cycle up to 15 times per second. You should not pump the brake pedal in a car with ABS. Pumping the brakes is a technique that is sometimes used in slippery conditions to allow the wheels to unlock so that the vehicle stays somewhat straight during a stop. In a car with ABS the wheels should never lock in the first place, so pumping the brakes will just make you take longer to stop. In an emergency stop in a car with ABS, you should apply the brake pedal firmly and hold it while the ABS does all the work. You will feel a pulsing in the pedal that may be quite violent, but this is normal so don't let off the brake.

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