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What does ABS mean on a car?

Learning about all of the features on your new car can be a lot like learning a new job. There’s an owner’s manual, but there are also dozens of abbreviations and a long list of automotive terminology to familiarize yourself with. One of the most prominent features on every new vehicle — anti-lock brakes — can be a confusing concept to understand, especially if you’re experiencing it first-hand. Let’s look at the details and learn more about what makes your vehicle stop. 

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What does ABS mean on a car?

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Anti-lock brakes, or ABS, is a feature that helps drivers stop their vehicle safely, predictably, and controllably, even under the heaviest braking scenarios. The ability to quickly react is important. The feature was first used to help airplanes maintain control in landing maneuvers, but it was adapted for use in cars in the 1970s. In simple terms, it ensures you don’t skid out of control if you need to suddenly slam on the brakes. It’s an early electronic driving aid.

How does ABS work?

Part of a vehicle’s stability control system, ABS uses sensors to monitor motion in the wheels under heavy braking. If the sensors detect an abnormal rotation, especially when a lockup is expected, the braking system forces a split-second release of braking pressure on the wheels where problems are imminent. This process is then repeated until braking is released or until a lockup is no longer detected as being a problem. ABS creates a vibration or a pulsating sensation in the brake pedal when it turns on; there’s a good chance you’ve experienced it before.

Why ABS?

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ABS helps the driver keep the car under control. Stopping and turning become very difficult if the wheels lock up and start to skid. That’s why, with ABS, the constant application and release of braking pressure allows just enough time between cycles for the wheels to rotate slightly and for the driver to stay in control until the car stops.

Keep in mind

It’s important to remember that ABS does not reduce your car’s stopping distance. In other words, if you’re headed for a collision with another vehicle, the ABS system may help you steer out of a direct impact, but it won’t stop your vehicle significantly faster than non-ABS brakes. That said, there are several benefits to anti-lock braking systems: 

  • Stopping on icy or slippery surfaces is easier and safer when ABS activates.
  • ABS works with the vehicle’s traction control system to ensure each wheel has proper grip and traction.
  • Drivers of ABS-equipped vehicles tend to pay less for insurance than those driving older vehicles without the system. This is due to the increased control and safety that the system offers.

On the downside, ABS systems can have problems:

  • ABS-equipped cars can be more expensive to repair due to the complicated and sometimes delicate sensors.
  • Some drivers report inconsistencies in stopping distances in vehicles that have ABS.

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Chris Teague
I cover automobiles and tech to find the stories and information that really matter. My background in technology consulting…
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