Buyer’s Guide: Braking Technology – What’s Standard, and Which Options To Choose

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Read the window sticker of any new car and braking technology is mentioned multiple times. What does it all mean, and which are special features not found on all cars?

Canyon brakes

Brakes are mentally linked to safety in the minds of customers and automakers make sure to tout the special systems they offer. Let’s break down the current braking technology and discern what the various systems do, and which are options not found on all cars.

Four-Wheel Disc Brakes

If you are at all familiar with brakes on automobiles, you may know that disc brakes are the more modern and commonplace system on cars today (The image above shows the Chevy Colorado’s disc brakes). But did you know that the top-selling midsize truck and the third-best selling sedan in America still use drum brakes in back? Disc brakes use a caliper to grip a rotor and have some advantages that are tough to dispute.

Tacoma 16 rear drums

However, Toyota still uses drum brakes on some models (Above image is of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma) because they are less expensive and less prone to some long-term maintenance issues. Defending its choice, Toyota points out that the Tacoma’s drum brakes stop it in a shorter distance than do its competitors’ disc brakes.

Anti-Lock Brakes

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are now universal in all U.S. cars and light trucks. Although government regulators dragged their feet on mandating this technology, when stability control became mandatory in 2011, ABS became mandated since the technologies work together to prevent wheel spin and help to control the car.

ABS works by monitoring wheel spin when the car is braking. By sensing differences in speed, the system can detect a wheel that has locked up and then pulse the pressure to just that wheel in the most modern systems. The same wheel-spin sensor can also be part of the tire pressure monitoring system and traction control in some vehicles.

Electronic Brake Force Distribution

Cars use hydraulics to help the driver apply pressure to the brakes. In older systems, the brakes were powered mechanically, meaning that the force applied was normally the same to all wheels each time the brakes were applied. However, when a vehicle is turning or under full braking load, the amount of brake force that can be used by one wheel may differ from that of another. Think of the inside rear wheel of a car that is cornering. It cannot accept much brake force without locking up or activating the ABS. To remedy this imbalance, automakers now incorporate a system that can sense the braking ability of each wheel and apply as much as can be put to use. This system is now universal.

brake assist toyota

Brake Assist

Automakers discovered through real-world crash analysis and testing that drivers often crashed into things even when the vehicle was capable of stopping in time. In emergencies, many drivers fail to apply full braking soon enough and long enough. Testing showed that drivers would initially stab at the brake pedal and then let up.

To remedy this, engineers designed a system that senses that initial stab of the brakes. Once the car knows the driver has initiated this panic stop, it takes over and applies full braking and adds to the duration of the braking. You may notice this system in action if you ever get more braking than you expected. This system works in conjunction with electronic brake force distribution and is on almost all vehicles now.

FCP graph IIHS jpeg

Emergency Automatic Braking (EAB) and Forward Collision Prevention Systems (FCP)

Emergency Automatic Braking (EAB)  is the system that you may want to look for in your next vehicle purchase. Not yet standard, but promised to be in the coming years by automakers, EAB stops your car automatically when a crash is imminent. Now a mature technology, even affordable sedans in the mid- to high-$20K offer this technology. To see a breakdown of every affordable compact crossover that has this technology, please check out our detailed report.

Toyota promises to make it standard on all 2018 models and will be the first to do that.  This technology was proven in real life testing to reduce frontal crashes by as much as 40%. It has saved this writer and others we know from accidents, and we suggest all shoppers look for it.

Brake By Wire

Brake by wire is not yet used in passenger cars. This system would replace or augment the hydraulic system in your car with electric motors and electronic sensors. We are darn close to brake by wire now that EAB and electronic brake force distribution are part of our cars. If it comes, the possible benefits would include lower weight and possible fuel economy improvements.


Automakers incorporate many types of braking systems on today’s vehicles. Most are standard, but look for automatic emergency braking, the one technology that is important and is not yet standard on most models.

Disc brake image at top of page courtesy of Chevrolet. Drum Brake Image courtesy of Toyota.

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