The History of ABS Brakes

by Dennis Hartman
itstillruns article image

Today anti-lock braking systems are a standard safety feature on many cars. But the development of ABS technology has been a long process. Many changes and refinements were required, before the early ABS system could be suitable for everyday use.


Anti-lock braking systems can be traced all the way back to the 1920s, when engineers first applied the concept of an automatic override braking system to aircraft brakes. This system served the same purpose as modern ABS, preventing wheels from locking during rapid deceleration, or on low-traction surfaces. ABS remained primarily an aircraft technology until the 1950s, when it was applied to motorcycles. Since skidding and loss of traction present a major safety risk to a motorcycle driver, this became a natural place to adapt the technology.


In the 1960s, automobile manufacturers began to experiment with ABS systems on passenger cars. The Ford Zodiac prototype featured one of the first viable ABS systems of this sort, but the expense associated with ABS led most auto manufacturers to abandon their efforts. In the 1970s, Cadillac offered ABS as a premium option on some rear-wheel drive models, but it remained an uncommon feature for mass-market cars. Since the '70s, the addition of computer-controlled sensors, and a general emphasis on automobile safety has led to a rapid evolution of the effectiveness and popularity of ABS.

Key Figures

French engineer Gabriel Voisin is often credited with developing the very first ABS for aircraft in the 1920s. Tony Wilson-Jones, of the British Enfield Cycle Company, was an early opponent of ABS, believing it to be an unnecessary technology, thereby setting back the evolution of ABS in the 1950s. In the 1970s, much of the rapid development of modern ABS was undertaken when Robert Bosch acquired a series of patents, and began a joint development venture with Mercedes-Benz. Many of the era's ABS advancements debuted on Mercedes-Benz models. By the 1980s, engineers at BMW led ABS development in applying it to motorcycles such as the K100.

ABS Today

Since the 1990s, ABS and related systems have become commonplace. Many drivers became aware of the technology only once it was made available as a standard feature, or a premium option on mainstream, high-selling cars and trucks. The addition of traction control systems (essentially an ABS that applied to acceleration instead of braking) made the technology even more ubiquitous.

Pros and Cons

The relative merits of ABS have been a subject of ongoing debate. Generally, this discussion weighs the cost of implementing an ABS system against the practical safety benefits, and the net effect on driver behavior. Many opponents of ABS cite the phenomenon of risk compensation, which theorizes that drivers of cars equipped with ABS tend to drive more aggressively due to the additional safety feature, thus negating any practical benefit. Others believe that a skilled driver is better able to control their vehicle in a dangerous situation, without the override of an automated system. Other tests, including those performed by the Highway Loss Data Institute, conclude that ABS is an effective way to prevent crashes, and promote overall road safety.

More Articles

article divider