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The Handbrake Will Soon Be a Thing of the Past

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author photo by Bill Leedy March 2018

Hello, friends of Oversteer. We are gathered here today to mourn the inevitable passing of an automotive feature doomed to obscurity. Soon it will be as common as having a foot-operated high-beam switch. Let's all have a moment of silence for the handbrake.

You see, it's a bittersweet time to be an automotive enthusiast. On one hand, objectively speaking, cars have never been better. They're faster, they're more powerful, their emissions have decreased dramatically, they're immeasurably safer, and engineering advancements can make even the largest of wagons handle better than the super cars of yesteryear. On the other hand, the simplistically pure driving experience is fading away.

Yes, the dual-clutch transmission shifts far smoother and far faster than any human ever could. However, pulling on the "-" paddle is a far less emotional, connected movement than that perfectly rev-matched heel-toe downshift into second as you aim for the apex. Whether you're on a track or trying to make your passenger sick as you blast up the on-ramp, there's a special satisfaction you feel when you get it just right. At the rate the manual transmission is disappearing, it won't be long before an entire generation doesn't know what that feels like.

It's the same story with all the other electronic aids and sensors. Young drivers won't know what it was like to have to turn your head in order to reverse the car or check your blind spot. In fact, it probably won't be much longer before they won't even be taught how to manually parallel park! They won't care about hitting that perfect apex on that twisty mountain road, because the lane-departure warning gets angry with them every time they approach the outer edges of their lane. On top of that, all the extra computers and complexity means that cars are heavier now -- and shortly, we'll all need computer engineering degrees in order to change the spark plugs.

The latest victim in the electrification and automation of the automobile is the good ol' fashioned handbrake. Now, instead of a large mechanical lever the driver can use in order to stop the car in an emergency or hold it in place on a hill, you merely have a little switch. Just a small twitch of the finger engages a small electric motor that clamps down the rear brakes and keeps the car in place. Another flick of the finger and you hear a small whirr as the brake is released and you can be on your way. That's it. Flick, wzzzt, done. Where's the fun in that?

I know, I know: The electronic parking brakes take up far less real estate in the center console, which allows automakers to make bigger cupholders so we can all have our supersize vente big gulp espressos. And they do work -- there are no cables to get old and rusty, but rather just some electrical wires and a motor mounted on the brake caliper. In a real emergency situation, where, say, a brake line has rusted and burst, just pull up on the little switch and hold it up. It won't like it -- but it will still be enough to bring the car to a stop for you while you wait for the tow truck. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? It's smaller, less susceptible to corrosion, and it will still help in an emergency. For 99 percent of the car-owning public, that is a perfectly acceptable solution.

The problem is that we are the 1 percent! We appreciate feeling like we're an integral part of the process, that we've done the work ourselves, that we've asserted our dominance over some simple mechanical device. But even more important than that is that the traditional handbrake allows for modulation. The electronic brake has two settings: on and off. But, in my Mazda3, I can have it off, a little bit on, a little bit more on, or even all the way on.

This ability is very helpful in two very different situations. Most practically, in the example above where the brake line has failed, being able to control how quickly or slowly the car comes to a stop can be much safer, especially for the people behind you. You can also drive the car a short distance to your home or shop as well, using the handbrake to bring the car to a stop as needed, which can save you some towing money. Most importantly, though, the mechanical handbrake allows us to channel our inner Ken Block, letting our front-wheel-drive cars slide beautifully around the empty parking lots found after each snowstorm. Doing this well requires finesse, along with the ability to quickly modulate how much or how little braking force is applied to the rear wheels. There's a subtle art to doing this right, and an electronic brake just can't do it.

It's a sad day, and it'll be even sadder when handbrakes are gone from all new cars. My current car has a handbrake -- but my next one likely won't. As of this writing, there are only 32 cars on the market that have not succumbed to this electronic wizardry. And with the exception of a few of sports cars like the Mustang, the 370Z and the Miata, it's just a list of the bottom of the barrel for each manufacturer -- things like the Chevy Trax, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa and Mitsubishi Mirage, for example.

Someday, like the "compact disc", we'll be speaking in past tense of that time you used to have to pull a lever to set your brake and you could only listen to 18 songs at a time. In other announcements, stay off my lawn and turn that music down. At least Mazda will still let me turn the stability control off completely in the Mazda3 … for now.

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The Handbrake Will Soon Be a Thing of the Past - Autotrader