What is ABS or Anti-Lock Braking System?

Posted by mustard.co.uk on February 7th, 2019 and last updated on January 21st, 2021

What is ABS? The mustard.co.uk guide:

Buying a car can be complicated – specs are often littered with jargon and if you don’t know what it all means, it can leave you feeling confused.

One piece of car tech lingo you should familiarise yourself with is ‘ABS’ which stands for ‘anti-lock braking system – but what are anti-lock brakes and what do they actually do?

What is ABS and how do anti-lock brakes work?

ABS (anti-lock braking system) is a technology that helps you keep steering control of your car when you hit the brakes hard in an emergency stop.

The science behind the anti-lock brake theory is relatively simple – it’s basically about preventing your wheels from locking up in an emergency stop. This means you are still able to steer even under heavy braking.

Close up of anti-lock brakes on a car

When is ABS most effective?

ABS works by using sensors on each wheel. If the sensors detect that one wheel is turning at a slower speed due to braking, it will release the brake for a split second before it starts to skid. This process is repeated until the car stops.

To pump the brakes like this manually is called ‘cadence braking’ and was an effective way to stop a car in a safe and controlled way before ABS. 

The system then applies braking pressure on and off continuously to each wheel to slow the car down but just enough so that you can still steer the car. All of this happens in seconds, so an ABS system is more effective and can stop faster than a professional driver with experience in cadence braking.

How to use anti-lock brakes in winter

Winter driving is all about common sense and while ABS is an important safety feature, it’s no replacement for good driving. So, whether or not you have ABS fitted, slow, steady driving is recommended in winter to prevent wheel lock.

Slippery surfaces like snow and ice can cause a problem for ABS and (like a loose road surface) can lead to an increase in stopping distance when anti-lock brakes take effect. If you need to stop in an emergency, the advice is to keep your foot on the brake pedal (don’t be tempted to pump it) and steer away from any obstacles until you come to a controlled stop.

Car driving on a lightly snow-covered road

When was ABS invented?

ABS has been around since the 1950s and was first used to improve aeroplane stopping distances. The first car with ABS fitted was a four-wheel drive sports car – the 1966 model of the Jensen FF.

In its original form ABS used hydraulics which weren’t really suitable for use in regular, mass produced cars. Improved tech in the 1970s meant that the idea could be adapted and in 1978, Mercedes-Benz was the first manufacturer to fit an ABS system onto a production-line car (a W111 S-class).

In 1985, Ford was the first car maker to put ABS as standard into their Granada and Scorpio ranges.

Which vehicles are fitted with ABS?

Like electronic stability control, all new, mass-produced cars sold in Europe must have anti-lock brakes. Some older cars (pre-2004) and specialist models like Caterhams might not be fitted with ABS but if you have an older car without ABS, you can still drive it.

It’s worth knowing that under MOT rules, you aren’t allowed to remove existing ABS from cars made from 2010.

How can I tell if my car has ABS?

What is ABS like to use – if you hit the brake pedal hard and feel a hard vibration under your foot, then it’s most likely that you have ABS fitted (putting normal pressure on your brake pedal isn’t enough to activate the ABS).

If you’re in any doubt, check your car’s paperwork or ask an engineer next time you have a service or MOT.

What to do if my ABS warning light stays on, is it safe to drive?

If your ABS light comes on it means the system may not work as effectively as usual – something you’ll need to take into account when you’re driving – and that it needs some attention as soon as possible.

While a warning light may mean something simple like you need more brake fluid, it’s always best to have your car checked by a professional.

Does ABS reduce braking distance?

This really depends on the type of road you’re driving on and the conditions. ABS work best on flat, solid surfaces and tests have proven that breaking distances are significantly reduced on roads.

ABS doesn’t perform so well on uneven ground or ‘loose’ surfaces like gravel or mud, which can lead to an increase in braking distances. This is partly because sensors can become confused and also because the system is designed to smooth out the braking process – meaning wheels don’t have the chance to ‘dig in’ or grip the surface.

In contrast though, cars that don’t have ABS can skid, which causes the loose surface (for example, gravel) to pile up in front of the wheel, helping it to come to a stop.

How much do anti-lock brakes cost?

ABS has been standard on all mass-produced cars in Europe since 2004 so it’ll be included in the cost of your car. However, if you’re looking to repair or replace the ABS then how much you pay will depend on the type of car you have and exactly what you’re replacing or fixing.

In terms of labour, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to install, but you’ll need to factor in this cost too. So, shop around and always get a least three quotes before you make a decision, as prices can vary widely.

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