Brake-by-wire: Terrifying or terrific?

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Since the advent of computers, it was really only a matter of time before the processing power of microchips worked its way into our automobiles. Are these mechanical brains helping or hurting the driving experience? Brake-by-wire is one such hotly-contested computer-controlled automotive system, and Jason Fenske’s latest video provides the perfect conversation starter.

It’s worth remembering that “the driving experience” is a giant catch-all term. Some folks will tell you that driving is all about the experience—literally. The sounds, the smells, the tactile feedback. Others don’t get behind the wheel without contemplating the safety and efficiency of their vehicle. Whichever mindset you favor, computers have made cars better.

The latest advancements include integrating computers into the end of the brake pedal. Sure, anti-lock braking systems have been around for decades, but those were merely an addition to the hydraulic system. Now we have something truly new. In a brake-by-wire system, there is no physical connection between the brake pedal and the calipers—at least, most of the time.

Before you furiously type a comment explaining how brake-by-wire ruins all that is holy, slow down. This technology has its place, and the all-electric Audi e-Tron Fenske drives in this episode of Engineering Explained is a prime example. His reasoning is sound: The computer brain on the other side of the brake pedal decides whether to use the standard friction binders to slow the car or to employ the electric motors to scavenge energy and charge the battery through regenerative braking. Since more BEVs are coming to market each year, more effective regen systems will help produce more usable cars. Brake-by-wire, for these vehicles, is a very practical choice.

Even combustion-powered cars can use a variant of brake-by-wire tech. The C8 Corvette is one such example. The mid-engine sports car uses electric components to adjust the vacuum brake booster based on different drive modes. This system has drawn some flak, however, since it also triggered a recall for early 2020 Corvettes: A failed module caused the brake system to require an unusual amount of pedal pressure to halt the faulty vehicles.

That instance, then, brings up the safety aspect of this discussion. Currently, all brake-by-wire systems have a check valve that allows a hydraulic system to step in when the electronics fail. (Did you want to worry about servicing two separate brake systems in your Corvette? Well, now you have to.) Hydraulic brake systems have been fitted to cars successfully for over a century, but the nature of progress sometimes requires fussing with a system that, a few years ago, seemed perfectly sufficient.

The moral of the brake-by-wire story? The car will continue to evolve, and there is nothing we can do to stop that. Pun intended.

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