The modern automotive brake system has been refined for over 100 years and has become extremely dependable and efficient.
The typical brake system consists of disk brakes in front and either disk or drum brakes in the rear connected by a system of tubes and hoses that link the brake at each wheel to the master cylinder. Other systems that are connected with the brake system include the parking brakes, power brake booster and the Anti Lock system.
When you step on the brake pedal, you are actually pushing against a plunger in the master cylinder, which forces hydraulic oil (brake fluid) through a series of tubes and hoses to the braking unit at each wheel. Since hydraulic fluid (or any fluid for that matter) cannot be compressed, pushing fluid through a pipe is just like pushing a steel bar through a pipe. Unlike a steel bar, however, fluid can be directed through many twists and turns on its way to its destination, arriving with the exact same motion and pressure that it started with. It is very important that the fluid is pure liquid and that there are no air bubbles in it. Air can compress, which causes a sponginess to the pedal and severely reduced braking efficiency. If air is suspected, then the system must be bled to remove the air. There are “bleeder screws” at each wheel cylinder and caliper for this purpose.
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 (rotor), 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.
With drum braks, fluid is forced into the wheel cylinder, which pushes the brake shoes out so that the friction linings are pressed against the drum, which is attached to the wheel, causing the wheel to stop.
In either case, 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.
The disk brake is the best brake we have found so far. Disk brakes are used to stop everything from cars to locomotives and jumbo jets. Disk brakes wear longer, are less affected by water, are self adjusting, self cleaning, less prone to grabbing or pulling and stop better than any other system around. The main components of a disk brake are the Brake Pads, Rotor, Caliper and Caliper Support.
So if disk brakes are so great, how come we still have cars with drum brakes? The reason is cost. While all vehicles produced for many years have disk brakes on the front, drum brakes are cheaper to produce for the rear wheels. The main reason is the parking brake system. On drum brakes, adding a parking brake is the simple addition of a lever, while on disk brakes, we need a complete mechanism, in some cases, a complete mechanical drum brake assembly inside the disk brake rotor! Parking brakes must be a separate system that does not use hydraulics. It must be totally mechanical, but more on parking brakes later.
Drum brakes consist of a backing plate, brake shoes, brake drum, wheel cylinder, return springs and an automatic or self-adjusting system. When you apply the brakes, brake fluid is forced under pressure into the wheel cylinder, which in turn 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.
The parking brake (a.k.a. emergency brake) system controls the rear brakes through a series of steel cables that are connected to either a hand lever or a foot pedal. The idea is that the system is fully mechanical and completely bypasses the hydraulic system so that the vehicle can be brought to a stop even if there is a total brake failure.
On cars with automatic transmissions, the parking brake is rarely used. This can cause a couple of problems. The biggest problem is that the brake cables tend to get corroded and eventually seize up causing the parking brake to become inoperative. By using the parking brake from time to time, the cables stay clean and functional. Another problem comes from the fact that the self adjusting mechanism on certain brake systems uses the parking brake actuation to adjust the brakes. If the parking brake is never used, then the brakes never get adjusted.
The power brake booster is mounted on the firewall directly behind the master cylinder and, along with the master cylinder, is directly connected with the brake pedal. Its purpose is to amplify the available foot pressure applied to the brake pedal so that the amount of foot pressure required to stop even the largest vehicle is minimal. Power for the booster comes from engine vacuum. The automobile engine produces vacuum as a by-product of normal operation and is freely available for use in powering accessories such as the power brake booster. Vacuum enters the booster through a check valve on the booster. The check valve is connected to the engine with a rubber hose and acts as a one-way valve that allows vacuum to enter the booster but does not let it escape. The booster is an empty shell that is divided into two chambers by a rubber diaphragm. There is a valve in the diaphragm that remains open while your foot is off the brake pedal so that vacuum is allowed to fill both chambers. When you step on the brake pedal, the valve in the diaphragm closes, separating the two chambers and another valve opens to allow air in the chamber on the brake pedal side. This is what provides the power assist. Power boosters are very reliable and cause few problems of their own, however, other things can contribute to a loss of power assist. In order to have power assist, the engine must be running. If the engine stalls or shuts off while you are driving, you will have a small reserve of power assist for two or three pedal applications but, after that, the brakes will be extremely hard to apply and you must put as much pressure as you can to bring the vehicle to a stop.
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.
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.
The system consists of an electronic control unit, a hydraulic actuator, and wheel speed sensors at each wheel. If the control unit detects a malfunction in the system, it will illuminate an ABS warning light on the dash to let you know that there is a problem. If there is a problem, the anti-lock system will not function but the brakes will otherwise function normally.