Published June 01, 2012
It’s the teenage version of the American Dream: getting your driver’s license.
But if you don’t read the fine print on the rules and regulations, the big day could turn into a long delay, as one New Jersey girl we spoke to recently found out.
Her mistake was having a successful father who drives a Volvo S80 sedan, which the N.J. DMV says isn’t approved for the road test. Not because it isn’t intrinsically safe -- the car is constructed of high-strength steel, has more airbags than air and can autonomously brake if it detects an obstacle ahead -- but because it was lacking one piece of very old-fashioned technology: a handbrake.
N.J. is among several states that require road tests to take place in a car with a handbrake lever, so the official sitting in the passenger seat can intervene to stop the car if necessary. Unfortunately for our would-be new driver, the S80 is one of a growing number of cars that uses an electronic parking brake that is activated by a switch on the center console and may one day kill both hand- and foot-activated parking brakes in cars while leaving DMVs to rewrite their rule books.
Lucky for her, grandma’s Honda Accord has a lever.
But the irony of this particular situation is that, while these devices have come to be colloquially known as “emergency brakes,” that’s not what they are primarily designed to be used as. According to General Motors brake engineering expert Rob Cannon, the regulations that cover the devices in the United States simply require them to work as parking brakes, the “emergency” function is technically incidental.
Nevertheless, some drivers, particularly those with manual transmission cars who live in hilly areas, often rely on handbrakes to keep them from rolling backward as they pull away from an uphill stop, making them an expected feature in many smaller vehicles; something that’s becoming less necessary thanks to the proliferation of “hill hold” features, which keep the main service brakes engaged for a few seconds as you move your foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator.
For larger vehicles with automatic transmissions, a foot-activated parking brake is often preferred by designers as it opens up prime real estate on the center console for more important features, like cup holders. But an electronic parking brake trumps both types on packaging and ease of use, if not price, which can be more than twice as much as traditional mechanical systems. Systems vary in design, but typically use an electrically-activated cable puller or a motor that directly engages the brake calipers. Along with taking up less room, the electronic systems are lighter and self-adjusting, so drivers don’t need to worry about maintenance or having to pull the lever to the ceiling before the brake engages, if ever.
Given the high costs involved, however, electronic parking brakes are currently a trickle down technology. The $40,000 Chevrolet Volt has one, for instance, but the $17,000 Chevrolet Cruze does not, despite being built on the same platform as its battery-powered brother. Currently, the lowest priced car in GM’s lineup that’s fitted with the technology is the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, which starts in the low $20s.
But some high-end automakers, like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche, have already switched their entire lineups to electronic parking brakes. For some, this is not a welcome development.
Tanner Foust, host of "Top Gear" on History and a leading Hollywood stunt driver, makes his living causing cars go sideways, backwards and upside down, often with a little help from a handbrake. A two-time champion in the motorsport of drifting, he’s one of a breed of drivers who have figured out how to use more than the steering wheel to control the direction of their vehicles with precision, but when it comes to electronic brakes, even he may have met his match.
“I have tried to adapt to electronically-activated handbrakes without much success," Foust says. "I was attempting a 180-degree spin with one not more than a week ago, to no avail.”
When you pull the switch or hit the button, the systems still work like emergency brakes, but engage gradually and don’t lock up the tires, as is required for a stylish skid.
Foust’s loss is ours, as this can only mean less old-fashioned stunt driving in blockbuster movies and more CGI. Either that, or an overabundance of well-dressed bad guys driving economy cars. He concludes that “for the driver who wants to park like Ace Ventura or avoid 9-point embarrassment on skinny U-turns, then there really is no replacement for the good ol' handbrake.”
Good advice, but not for use during your driver’s test, regardless of what you’re behind the wheel of.