Ridiculously Complicated Fixes…: Wireless Electronic Brakes Edition

via BikeRadar.

Yes, it’s the stuff of potential nightmares: a wireless disc brake setup. As noted here on BB before (and many other places), we’ve kind of been down this road before in cycling, with the Mavic Mektronic shifting setup. Which was kind of a disaster/joke. And, no, it wasn’t a disaster because of the wireless shifting alone….but the wireless deal always seemed like a solution to a problem we never had. Shimano seems to agree, given that they have now released two, big dollar (even for Ultegra Di2) electronic shifting setups that use wires for shift “actuation” (and little motors to actually move the derailleurs; which may well be the “real” actuation, now that I think about it).

Electronic shifting seems fairly simple compared to braking. For one thing, the total force and energy needed to complete a shift (which is actually just the force needed to move a derailleur a couple of millimeters at a time) must be lower than pushing the disc pistons with sufficient force, right? So, if the biggest manufacturer of components in the world – with a massive R&D budget and all that – decides to not even bother with wireless shifting, why would anyone bother with wireless braking??

If it did work, though, what are the possible advantages of a wireless braking setup? I think there are two fundamental (and obvious) ones:

  • The simplest (potential) advantage: lack of cables/hoses (and needing to accommodate cabling in/around the frame). With wireless braking, the set-up work would be almost completely centered on the caliper. You would bolt on the caliper, do the adjustments and attach whatever pneumatic source is required for the actuation of the caliper. But, this is probably going to be a hydraulic setup, right? If so, you are not actually removing the hydraulic actuation process from the bike, you are simply moving it from the brake levers on the bars to the caliper area itself. So, running a hydraulic cable from the levers is only really adding the marginal increase in hosing (a couple of feet) and whatever amount of extra hydraulic fluid is in that hose. I can say, having just installed new caliper and levers on my MTB, that there really isn’t much fluid in those hoses (the inside diameter of hydraulic hoses, in other words, is quite small). Thus, I don’t see much advantage to removing the hoses, apart from freeing up one more (albeit fairly minor) parameter for frame designer, who would no longer need to think about internal routing, external hose mounts, etc.
  • The other potential advantage is reducing the complexity of the brake lever/actuator on the bars. If you only really need some kind of electronic device that measures how much a lever is being moved and translates that into an electronic signal sent to the caliper/receiver (which would translate the movement of the actuator into an analogous movement of the “real” brake), you don’t need much up there on the bars. This could very easily (I would assume) fit into the body of even an old-school, simple brake lever. I suppose you could even have multiple actuators (think brake levers on the bar tops of cross bikes, as currently used), allowing the rider to brake from almost any position. This last option is a bit more compelling…but, then again, it’s hard to imagine many more places on the bars from where I’d rather actuate the brakes.

As I think this through here, the wireless braking idea still seems like a big loser. Or, maybe just another ridiculously complicated fix to a non-problem that we didn’t really have. Given that we still don’t have a real road hydraulic disc option yet, let’s hope for the development of one over the next year or two. Once the “traditional” hose/line-actuated hydraulic setup has been refined, then maybe – maybe – the idea of a wireless braking setup would be worth considering.

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