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Avoid Car Accidents and Save Money on Your Insurance. How to Choose the Right Brakes for Your Car
Brake technology, just like suspension technology and fuel-system technology, has come a long way in recent years. What began in the '60s as a serious attempt to provide adequate braking for performance cars has ended in an industry where brakes range from supremely adequate to downright phenomenal. The introduction of components like carbon fiber, sintered metal and lightweight steel, along with the adoption of ABS, have all contributed to reduced stopping distances and generally safer vehicles (though ABS continues to provide controversy).
One of the first steps taken to improve braking came in the early '70s when manufacturers, on a widespread scale, switched from drum to disc brakes. Since the majority of a vehicle's stopping power is contained in the front wheels, only the front brakes were upgraded to disc during much of this period. Since then, many manufacturers have adopted four-wheel disc brakes on their high-end and performance models as well as their low-line economy cars.
Friction and Heat
Before you can appreciate the difference between drum and disc brakes, you have to understand the common principles that both systems use when stopping a car: friction and heat. By applying resistance, or friction, to a turning wheel, a vehicle's brakes cause the wheel to slow down and eventually stop, creating heat as a byproduct. It also depends heavily on how well a brake system converts wheel movement into heat (by way of friction) and, subsequently, how quickly this heat is removed from the brake components. This is where the difference between drum brakes and disc brakes becomes pronounced.
Early automotive brake systems, after the era of hand levers of course, used a drum design at all four wheels. They were called drum brakes because the components were housed in a round drum that rotated along with the wheel. Inside was a set of shoes that, when the brake pedal was pressed, would force the shoes against the drum and slow the wheel. Fluid was used to transfer the movement of the brake pedal into the movement of the brake shoes, while the shoes themselves were made of a heat-resistant friction material similar to that used on clutch plates.
This basic design proved capable under most circumstances, but it had one major flaw. Under high braking conditions, like descending a steep hill with a heavy load or repeated high-speed slow downs, drum brakes would often fade and lose effectiveness. Usually this fading was the result of too much heat build-up within the drum. Remember that the principle of braking involves turning kinetic energy (wheel movement) into thermal energy (heat). For this reason, drum brakes can only operate as long as they can absorb the heat generated by slowing a vehicle's wheels. Once the brake components themselves become saturated with heat, they lose the ability to halt a vehicle, which can be somewhat disconcerting to the vehicle's operator.
Though disc brakes rely on the same basic principles to slow a vehicle (friction and heat), their design is far superior to that of drum brakes. Instead of housing the major components within a metal drum, disc brakes use a slim rotor and small caliper to halt wheel movement. Within the caliper are two brake pads, one on each side of the rotor, that clamp together when the brake pedal is pressed. Once again, fluid is used to transfer the movement of the brake pedal into the movement of the brake pads.
But unlike drum brakes, which allow heat to build up inside the drum during heavy braking, the rotor used in disc brakes is fully exposed to outside air. This exposure works to constantly cool the rotor, greatly reducing its tendency to overheat or cause fading. Not surprisingly, it was under racing circumstances that the weaknesses of drum brakes and the strengths of disc brakes were first illustrated. Racers with disc brake systems could carry their speed "deeper" into a corner and apply greater braking force at the last possible second without overheating the components. Eventually, as with so many other automotive advances, this technology filtered down to the cars driven by everyday people on public roads.
About the Author: Vance Talmadge is a mechanic with 20 years of experience in the Redondo Beach Brake and Tune industry. He has experience with every brake and brake system that is available on every car that is manufactured today.