The braking system is the most important system in your car. If your brakes fail, the result can be disastrous. Brakes are actually energy conversion devices, which convert the kinetic energy (momentum) of your vehicle into thermal energy (heat). When you step on the brakes, you command a stopping force ten times as powerful as the force that puts the car in motion. The braking system can exert thousands of pounds of pressure on each of the four brakes. In modern systems, the master cylinder is power-assisted by the engine. All newer cars have dual systems, with two wheels’ brakes operated by each subsystem. That way, if one subsystem fails, the other can provide reasonably adequate braking power. Safety systems like this make modern brakes more complex, but also much safer than earlier braking systems.
The brake system is composed of the following basic components: The “master cylinder” which is located under the hood, and is directly connected to the brake pedal, converts your foot’s mechanical pressure into hydraulic pressure. Steel “brake lines” and flexible “brake hoses” connect the master cylinder to the “slave cylinders” located at each wheel. Brake fluid, specially designed to work in extreme conditions, fills the system. “Shoes” and “pads” are pushed by the slave cylinders to contact the “drums” and “rotors” thus causing drag, which (hopefully) slows the car.
In recent years, brakes have changed greatly in design. Disc brakes, used for years for front wheel applications, are fast replacing drum brakes on the rear wheels of modern cars. This is generally due to their simpler design, lighter weight and better braking performance. The greatest advantage of disc brakes is that they provide significantly better resistance to “brake fade” compared to drum type braking systems. Brake fade is a temporary condition caused by high temperatures generated by repeated hard braking. It occurs when the pads or shoes “glaze” due to the great pressure and heat of hard use. Once they cool, the condition subsides. Disc brakes allow greater air ventilation (cooling) compared to drum brakes. Drum brakes are not internally ventilated because if they were, water could accumulate in them. Disc brakes can rapidly fling off any water that they are exposed to, and so they can be well ventilated.
“Boosters” are present in “power brake” systems, and use the engine’s energy to add pressure to the master cylinder. “Anti-lock” (ABS) systems, originally developed for aircraft braking systems, use computer controlled valves to limit the pressure delivered to each slave cylinder. If a wheel locks up, steering input cannot affect the car’s direction. With ABS, no matter how hard the pedal is pressed, each wheel is prevented from locking up. This prevents skidding (and allows the driver to steer while panic-braking).
As impressive as these advances are, the basic process of converting a vehicle’s momentum into (wasted) heat energy has not changed since the days of the horse and buggy. To stop a horse drawn carriage, the driver would pull on a lever which would rub on the wheel. But today, with the advent of regenerating brakes on electric vehicles, new ways of recapturing this lost energy are being developed. In these types of electric cars, when you step on the brakes, the motor switches into “generator mode”, and stores the car’s momentum as chemical energy in the battery, to be used again when the light turns green!
Disc brakes use a clamping action to produce friction between the “rotor” and the “pads” mounted in the “caliper” attached to the suspension members. Inside the calipers, pistons press against the pads due to pressure generated in the master cylinder. The pads then rub against the rotor, slowing the vehicle. Disc brakes work using much the same basic principle as the brakes on a bicycle; as the caliper pinches the wheel with pads on both sides, it slows the bicycle. Disc brakes offer higher performance braking, simpler design, lighter weight, and better resistance to water interference than drum brakes.
Disc brakes, like many automotive innovations, were originally developed for auto racing, but are now standard equipment on virtually every car made. On most cars, the front brakes are of the disc type, and the rear brakes are of the “drum” type. Drum brakes use two semi-circular shoes to press outward against the inner surfaces of a steel drum. Older cars often had drum brakes on all four wheels, and many new cars now have 4-wheel disc brakes.
Because disc brakes can fling off water more easily than drum brakes, they work much better in wet conditions. This is not to say that water does not affect them, it definitely does. If you splash through a puddle and then try to apply the brakes, your brakes may not work at all for a few seconds! Disc brakes also allow better airflow cooling, which also increases their effectiveness. Some high performance disc brakes have drilled or slotted holes through the face of the rotor, which helps to prevent the pads from “glazing” (becoming hardened due to heat). Disc brakes were introduced as standard equipment on most cars in the early seventies.
The brake drum is a heavy flat-topped cylinder, which is sandwiched between the wheel rim and the wheel hub. The inside surface of the drum is acted upon by the linings of the brake shoes. When the brakes are applied, the brake shoes are forced into contact with the inside surface of the brake drums to slow the rotation of the wheels.
The drums are usually covered with fins on their outer surfaces to increase cooling. They are not cooled internally, because water could enter through the air vent cooling holes and braking would then be greatly impaired.
Drum brakes are found on the rear wheels of most older cars, but they are increasingly being fazed out in favor of rear disc brakes. Drum brakes were standard equipment on all four wheels of most cars until the early 70’s.
The caliper works like a C-clamp to pinch the pads onto the rotor. It straddles the rotor and contains the hydraulic “slave cylinder” or “wheel cylinder” piston(s). One caliper is mounted to the suspension members on each wheel. The caliper is usually mounted onto the spindle, allowing it to deliver the torsional force of the wheel to the chassis via the control arms. Brake hoses connect the caliper to the brake lines leading to the master cylinder. A “bleeder valve” is located on each caliper to allow air bubbles to be purged from the system.
“Floating caliper” disc brakes, the most common variety, allow the caliper to move from side to side slightly when the brakes are applied. This is because only one pad moves (in relation to the caliper). Some calipers contain two or four seperate pistons. These calipers are fixed in place; i.e., there is no lateral movement like the floating caliper, the pistons take up the slack on each side of the rotor. These are called “dual cylinder” or “dual piston” calipers, and are standard equipment on many performance cars.
Wheel (Slave) Cylinder
Wheel cylinders, also called the “slave” cylinders, are cylinders in which movable piston(s) convert hydraulic brake fluid pressure into mechanical force. Hydraulic pressure against the piston(s) within the wheel cylinder forces the brake shoes or pads against the machined surfaces of the drum or rotor. There is one cylinder (or more in some systems) for each wheel. Drum brake wheel cylinders are usually made up of a cylindrical casting, an internal compression spring, two pistons, two rubber cups or seals, and two rubber boots to prevent entry of dirt and water. This type of wheel cylinder is fitted with push rods that extend from the outer side of each piston through a rubber boot, where they bear against the brake shoes. In disc brakes, the wheel cylinder is built into the caliper. All wheel cylinders have bleeder screws (or bleeder valves) to allow the system to be purged of air bubbles.
As the brake pedal is depressed, it moves pistons within the master cylinder, pressurizing the brake fluid in the brake lines and slave cylinders at each wheel. The fluid pressure causes the wheel cylinders’ pistons to move, which forces the shoes or pads against the brake drums or rotors. Drum brakes use return springs to pull the pistons back away from the drum when the pressure is released. On disc brakes, the calipers’ piston seals are designed to retract the piston slightly, thus allowing the pads to clear the rotor and thereby reduce rolling friction.
Parking (Emergency) Brakes
The parking brake (sometimes called the emergency brake) is a cable-activated system used to hold the brakes continuously in the applied position. The parking brake activates the brakes on the rear wheels. Instead of hydraulic pressure, a cable (mechanical) linkage is used to engage the brake shoes or discs. When the parking-brake pedal is pressed (or, in many cars, a hand lever is pulled), a steel cable draws the brake shoes or pads firmly against the drums or rotors. The release lever or button slackens the cables and disengages the brake shoes. The parking brake is self adjusting on most systems. An automatic adjuster compensates for lining (brake shoe) wear. On many cars, the parking brake is used to re-adjust the brake shoes as they wear in, or when the shoes are replaced. In these systems, the adjustment is made by repeatedly applying the parking brake while backing up.
The parking brake can be useful while driving up hills: If you’re driving a manual transmission car, and you pull up to a stop on an incline, you might notice that you don’t have enough feet to operate the clutch, brake, and gas at the same time. In other words, you will likely roll backwards slightly while getting started again. If a someone pulls up right behind you, this can be a problem. Your parking brake is useful in this situation: Apply the parking brake after you stop. When you want to go, release the clutch while pressing the gas, and release the parking brake. This keeps you from having to quickly switch your left foot from the brake to the clutch, or your right foot from the brake to the gas pedal. A little practice, and you’ll be able to do it smoothly. Also, remember if you pull up behind someone who is stopped on a hill, give them extra room to roll back a little. Especially if it’s a truck.
Some cars have no parking brake release! They automatically release the parking brake when the car is placed in drive or reverse.
Remember, it’s a good idea to test the parking brake periodically and keep it in good condition. It may save your life if the main braking system fails!
The master cylinder displaces hydraulic pressure to the rest of the brake system. It holds THE most important fluid in your car, the brake fluid. It actually controls two separate subsystems which are jointly activated by the brake pedal. This is done so that in case a major leak occurs in one system, the other will still function. The two systems may be supplied by separate fluid reservoirs, or they may be supplied by a common reservoir. Some brake subsystems are divided front/rear and some are diagonally separated. When you press the brake pedal, a push rod connected to the pedal moves the “primary piston” forward inside the master cylinder. The primary piston activates one of the two subsystems. The hydraulic pressure created, and the force of the primary piston spring, moves the secondary piston forward. When the forward movement of the pistons causes their primary cups to cover the bypass holes, hydraulic pressure builds up and is transmitted to the wheel cylinders. When the brake pedal retracts, the pistons allow fluid from the reservoir(s) to refill the chamber if needed.
Electronic sensors within the master cylinder are used to monitor the level of the fluid in the reservoirs, and to alert the driver if a pressure imbalance develops between the two systems. If the brake light comes on, the fluid level in the reservoir(s) should be checked. If the level is low, more fluid should be added, and the leak should be found and repaired as soon as possible. BE SURE TO USE THE RIGHT BRAKE FLUID FOR YOUR VEHICLE. Use of improper brake fluid can “contaminate the system”. If this occurs, ALL of the seals in the brake system will need replacement, and that is usually a VERY expensive operation.
Brake Warning System
The brake warning system has been required standard equipment since 1970, and is connected to the master cylinder. It monitors differences in pressure in the brake lines of the two hydraulic sub-systems, and alerts the driver with a light if an imbalance occurs. When you turn the key to the Ignition position, the brake warning light on the dash comes on during a “self-test”. You should not drive a car if the warning light does not come on during the startup self test.
The brake system is divided into two sub-systems to increase safety. A pressure differential switch, connected to the warning light, is positioned between the two. If a major leak occurs, and therefore pressure in one of the lines is sharply reduced, pressure from the other side forces a piston to move, activating the pressure differential switch and turns on the dashboard warning light.
There are two types of pressure differential switches; mechanical or hydraulic. Mechanical switches are activated by excessive brake travel. Hydraulic switches are activated by a difference in pressure between the front and rear system. When pressure in one of the lines is sharply reduced, pressure from the other side forces a piston to move. A plunger pin then drops into a groove in the piston, activating a switch that turns on a dashboard warning light.
The brake warning light is also connected to the brake fluid level sensors in the master cylinder reservoir(s). If the brake warning light comes on, the fluid level should be checked. If the level is low, more fluid should be added, and the leak should be found and repaired as soon as possible. BE SURE TO USE THE RIGHT FLUID. NEVER IGNORE THE BRAKE WARNING LAMP, AND ALWAYS NOTE WHETHER IT WORKS DURING THE STARTING SELF-TEST.
Power brakes (also called “power assisted” brakes) are designed to use the power of the engine and/or battery to enhance braking power. The four most common types of power brakes are: vacuum suspended; air suspended; hydraulic booster, and electro-hydraulic booster. Most cars use vacuum suspended units (vacuum boosters), which employ a vacuum-powered booster device to provide added thrust to the foot pressure applied.
In a vacuum booster type system, pressure on the brake pedal pushes forward a pushrod connected to the pistons within the master cylinder. At the same time, the pushrod opens the vacuum-control valve so that it closes the vacuum port and seals off the forward half of the booster unit. The engine vacuum line then creates a low-pressure vacuum chamber. Atmospheric pressure in the control chamber then pushes against the diaphragm. The pressure on the diaphragm forces it forward, supplying pressure on the master cylinder pistons.
Hydraulic booster systems usually tap into the power steering pump’s pressure, and use this power to augment pressure to the master cylinder. Electro-hydraulic booster systems use an electric motor to pressurize a hydraulic system which augments pressure to the master cylinder. This allows the vehicle to have power assisted brakes even if the engine quits.
You may wish to compare the difference between power and non-assisted braking in a safe area; while driving slowly, turn the ignition key off (don’t turn it into the locked position, because the steering wheel will lock, which is highly unsafe.) As the car coasts along, press the brakes hard. The force of your foot is now the only thing stopping the car. The safe driver is always ready to apply the total force needed to stop their vehicle, even if the engine quits (thereby removing the power assist).
Filler Cap (Brake Fluid Reservoir Cover)
The cap on the brake fluid reservoir has a hole for air, or is vented, to allow the fluid to expand and contract without creating a vacuum or causing pressure. A rubber diaphragm goes up and down with the fluid level’s pressure, and keeps out any dust or moisture. If the cap’s seal becomes distorted, it usually indicates a brake fluid contamination problem.
Vacuum From The Engine
Engine intake manifold vacuum is used for augmenting the foot’s braking power in vacuum assisted power brakes. This vacuum is created by the pistons as they draw downward, sucking air into the cylinders. When you push the brake pedal down, the vacuum control valve lets the engine draw a vacuum in the front section of the booster unit. The atmospheric pressure on the other side of the diaphragm provides significant additional braking force.
Brake fluid is a special liquid for use in hydraulic brake systems, which must meet highly exact performance specifications. It is designed to be impervious to wide temperature changes and to not suffer any significant changes in important physical characteristics such as compressibility over the operating temperature range. The fluid is designed to not boil, even when exposed to the extreme temperatures of the brakes.
Different types of brake fluid are used in different systems, and should NEVER be mixed. Most cars use “DOT 3” or “DOT 4” brake fluid. Some newer cars use silicone brake fluids. These should NEVER be mixed together, because the seals in each car are designed to work with only their specific fluid types. For example, the mixing of “Silicone” brake fluid and conventional glycol based DOT 3 or DOT 4 fluids should be avoided, as the two fluid types are not miscible (they will not mix together). DOT 3 brake fluids and DOT 4 brake fluids can be mixed.
One of the WORST things that can happen to your car is if the brake fluid becomes contaminated, because the seals are designed to work with only pure brake fluid. “System contamination” means that all of the piston seals and hoses are deteriorating, and therefore must be replaced, a MAJOR expense. So, be VERY careful what you put in the master cylinder reservoir!
It should be noted that brake fluid is highly corrosive to paint, and care should be used not to get it on your car’s finish.
The brake fluid in your car should be changed every (See Owners Manual) to prevent corrosion of the braking system components.
Anti-lock Brake Systems (ABS)
Originally developed for aircraft, ABS basically works by limiting the pressure to any wheel which decelerates too rapidly. This allows maximum stopping force to be applied without brake lockup (skidding). If standard brakes are applied too hard, the wheels “lock” or skid, which prevents them from giving directional control. If directional control (steering) is lost, the vehicle skids in a straight line wherever it is going. ABS allows the driver to steer during hard braking, which allows you to control the car much better. In the old days, drivers had to know how to “pump” the brakes or sense the lockup and release foot pressure in order to prevent skidding. This meant that if only one wheel lost traction and started to skid, the driver would have to reduce braking force to prevent a skid. The advantage of ABS is that the brakes on the wheels with good traction can be used to the fullest possible amount, even if other wheels lose traction.
An Anti-Lock Braking System consists of speed sensors located at each wheel and a central computer. The speed sensors measures how fast each wheel is turning, and sends that information back to the computer. The computer constantly evaluates the speed of the vehicle and the speed of the wheels. When the brake pedal is depressed and the speed of the wheel reaches or get close to locking-up, the ABS computer will then modulate the amount of brake pressure (or “pump” the brakes), as fast as fifteen times per second, on that wheel. This is usually accomplished by diverting the brake fluid into a small reservoir. The fluid is later pumped out of the reservoir and returned to the main fluid reservoir when the brakes are not being applied.This continuing modulation or pumping will prevent or correct wheel lock-up and allow the driver to brake and steer.
The anti-lock brake system tests itself every time the vehicle is started and every time the brakes are applied. The system evaluates its own signals. If a defect is detected, the system then turns off, leaving normal braking unaffected.
To correctly use the brakes in an ABS equipped car in a panic situation, the driver must apply the brakes 100 percent, using all available force. The ABS computer will prevent brake lockup and the tires sliding on the travel surface. This will allow the driver to steer around the threat. It is important to remember that ABS can increase straight-line stopping distances beyond that of threshold braking in a non-ABS equipped car. ABS offers drivers, in an emergency situation, the ability to maintain steering control so they can steer clear of an obstacle or threat. Current ABS systems give feedback to the driver to let them know it is activated and operating during the current braking maneuver. The most common way that ABS communicates to the driver is a pulsing sensation felt in the braking foot or a rattling noise during braking. This is normal operation and is telling the driver ABS is working. As discussed above, do not attempt to modulate the brake yourself and remember to use all the brake force available. The ABS system will take care of the modulation for you and allow you to steer around a threat.