The Biggest Change in Brakes in 40 Years

I don’t normally write about one technology from one company, but this time I have to make an exception. I think Brembo has come up with the most important development in brakes the industry has seen in 40 years.

The last big breakthrough was when antilock brakes, or ABS, came out in the early 1980s. But now, Brembo has come up with a new kind of brake system that probably obsoletes everything on the road today. In fact, in time, I think this new brake system is going to end up on every vehicle – just like, when ABS first came out, it was only on luxury cars. But now it’s on everything.

Today’s brakes pretty much all work the same. You step on the brake pedal which is connected to a master cylinder that pushes hydraulic fluid to brake cylinders that are located at all four wheels. When you step on the pedal the brake pads on all four wheels activate at the same time.

But the new Brembo system, which they call Sensify, controls the braking at each wheel independently. And that’s a whole new ball game – especially when it comes to emergency braking, and even more so when it’s on wet or slippery surfaces.

Here’s how it works: When you press on the brake pedal there is no mechanical connection to the brakes at all. Instead, the brake pedal module sends electronic signals to a brake control unit, or computer. That sends signals to hydraulic actuators that pump fluid to the calipers and that, in turn, activates the brake pistons.

That’s the fully hydraulic version of the system. Brembo’s system can also use electric motors (inset, bottom left) to actuate the brakes, where the brake control unit sends signals to electric motors that activate the pistons in the calipers.

Automakers can even choose to use a combination of hydraulic and electric actuation, say, with hydraulics on the front and electric on the rear. If it’s hydraulic, Brembo calls it a wet system. If it’s electric, it calls it dry.

Brembo is offering these different combinations because the best application varies by vehicle. Hydraulics are best suited for big, heavy SUVs. Low-speed or commercial vehicles will probably go dry. Other applications will be a combination of wet and dry.

Sports cars and high-performance cars will probably use a wet system, because with the dry system the electric actuators add more unsprung weight to each wheel, and that detracts from handling. But I’m also told that in time, those electric actuators will become light enough that even hypercars will probably go with the dry system.

Brembo let the media test drive the system at Michelin’s proving grounds in North Carolina, and the results were impressive. Interestingly, Brembo used Tesla dual-motor Model 3s for the test, because Brembo says that model comes with one of the best braking systems available. And by the way, if you didn’t know it, Tesla uses Brembo brakes on its cars. But as good as Tesla brakes are today, the new Sensify system is clearly superior.

We did A and B comparisons, using today’s system versus Sensify. That included slam-on-the-brake tests on a dry and wet surface at low speeds, high-speed brake tests while cornering, and emergency braking and accident-avoidance maneuvers on wet and dry surfaces.

With today’s Brembo brakes on the Model 3, the ABS triggers a lot of brake pedal pulsing, lots of noise and some mild understeer. With Sensify that all goes away. It’s quiet, smooth and totally predictable. No pedal pulsing. It makes an emergency slam-on-the-brakes stop feel like a normal braking maneuver. And it eliminates understeer because it can put more brake pressure on the outside wheels, something today’s braking systems don’t do.

Brembo claims it takes 180 milliseconds to completely lock the brakes with today’s systems, but only 100 milliseconds with Sensify. That’s barely the blink of an eye, but in an emergency, even that helps.

Sensify can be fitted to any type of vehicle ranging from city cars to sedans to SUVs and even commercial vehicles. And with electric vehicles, it maximizes the regen that you can get from each wheel.

McElroy SQUARE.jpgThere are other, non-braking benefits as well. For one thing, it will make it easier to attach the brakes to cars at the assembly plant, especially if it’s a dry system. That would allow automakers to get rid of all the drums of brake fluid they need at the plant, and it eliminates the need to bleed the brakes. So that should reduce assembly costs.

But the best selling point is that it will make drivers feel far safer and more comfortable, especially in emergency situations.

Brembo is not the only brake company working on a system like this; it’s just the first to demonstrate it. Others will come out with similar technology.

Sensify will go into production in 2024, but Brembo won’t say who the first car company to use it will be. But if I had to guess, I think it could be Tesla.

John McElroy (pictured above, left) is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.

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