So what's the point? Actually it makes sense on many counts.
These new electronic parking brake (EPB) systems, once you're used to them, are very convenient. There's no guessing whether it's properly engaged or not—that's all done by electronics, and all you need to do is switch it on or off. And yes, they operate independently of the primary braking system.
The idea was completely new when we first encountered an EPB in the 2002 BMW 7-Series, nearly ten years ago. That model marked the debut of the electronic parking brake in the U.S. market, with the 2003 Jaguar S-Type and 2003 Lincoln LS also among the first.
Now you're quite likely to see electric parking brakes when shopping; they're in everything from the 2011 Subaru Legacy to the 2011 Ford Mustang.
But deployment has been sluggish. According to TRW Automotive, just about ten percent of new cars in North America will have EPB systems by 2015.
They're catching on slower in the U.S. than in some other markets, such as Europe for one important reason: "In North America, adoption of this technology has lagged other regions primarily as a result of a higher percentage of automatic transmissions and drivers using their parking brake less often," said TRW Automotive in a recent release.
For those with a manual transmission, the electronic system automatically holds the vehicle in place and, in most cases, will release it when needed to allow a smooth start on a hill.
While it might sound more complex, electronic parking brakes save weight—up to 16 pounds versus a conventional drum-in-hat system. Fundamentally, it's also a simpler system, with fewer adjustments required and, says TRW, fewer warranty claims.
The only negative to this setup that we've seen is that manufacturers haven't been altogether consistent about how you engage and disengage the systems. Some are mounted on the center console, others on the dash—some in a place that requires craning your neck around the steering wheel to see it—and some you pull up or back to engage, others you push in.
Safety for emergency braking one other major advantage to EPB setups. Manual handbrake levers can lock up the rear wheels quite easily if you're attempting an emergency stop on anything but dry pavement. EPB mechanisms work with the anti-lock braking system, as the electronics are integrated—and it can even be configured to brake with all four wheels under emergency situations.
Another safety feature that's built into most EPB systems but isn't often touted is that they include an auto-apply feature: Say the driver steps out of the vehicle, thinking that the brake has already been applied, and the vehicle starts rolling. In that case, the parking brake automatically cinches up—and knows to because it's tied in with the door switch and seatbelt switches.
So if you have some hesitation in letting electronics do the work, keep in mind that someday they could save you.