What is ABS or Anti-Lock Braking System?

Posted by mustard.co.uk on February 7th, 2019

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 control of your car when you hit the brakes hard.

The science behind the anti-lock brake theory is relatively simple – it’s basically about preventing your wheels from seizing up in an emergency stop. The easiest way to think of it, is that it’s an automated version of ‘cadence braking’ which is where you pump the brake pedal continuously, letting you come to a controlled stop.

Close up of anti-lock brakes on a car

When will anti-lock brakes take effect?

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 releases the brake for a split second to stop the wheel locking.

The system then applies brake 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 than a professional driver with experience in cadence braking.

When was ABS invented?

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

ABS in its original form 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 were the first to fit an ABS system onto a production-line car (a W111 S-class).

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

Vehicles fitted with anti-lock brakes

Since 2004, all new, mass-produced cars sold in Europe must have anti-lock brakes. Some older cars and specialist models like Caterhams might not have the technology 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?

If you hit the brake pedal hard and feel a shudder, 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, don’t panic – your car is still safe to drive (as long as the brakes themselves are still working). It just means the ABS needs some attention and may not work as effectively as usual – something you’ll need to take into account when you’re driving.

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 if you’re not sure.

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 don’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 skid which causes the loose surface (for example, gravel) to pile up in front of the wheel forcing it to stop.

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.

Snow and ice can cause a problem for ABS and (like loose surfaces) can lead to an increase in stopping distance. 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

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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