Steering is one of the most important components of a car. Steering wheels are used in most modern land vehicles, including all mass-production automobiles as well as light and heavy trucks. The steering wheel is the part of the steering system that is manipulated by the driver; the rest of the steering system responds to such driver inputs. This can be through direct mechanical contact as in recirculating ball or rack and pinion steering gears, without or with the assistance of hydraulic power steering. You know that when you turn the steering wheel in your car, the wheels turn because of the mechanism between the steering wheel and the tires to make this happen.
Turning the Car:
For a car to turn smoothly, each wheel must follow a different circle. Since the inside wheel is following a circle with a smaller radius, it is actually making a tighter turn than the outside wheel. If you draw a line perpendicular to each wheel, the lines will intersect at the center point of the turn. The geometry of the steering linkage makes the inside wheel turn more than the outside wheel.
There are a couple different types of steering gears. The most common are rack and pinion and recirculating ball.
Rack and Pinion Steering
The pinion gear is attached to the steering shaft. When you turn the steering wheel, the gear spins, moving the rack. The tie rod at each end of the rack connects to the steering arm on the spindle (see diagram above).
The rack-and-pinion gear-set does two things:
- It converts the rotational motion of the steering wheel into the linear motion needed to turn the wheels.
- It provides a gear reduction, making it easier to turn the wheels.
The steering ratio is the ratio of how far you turn the steering wheel to how far the wheels turn. For instance, if one complete revolution (360 degrees) of the steering wheel results in the wheels of the car turning 20 degrees, then the steering ratio is 360 divided by 20, or 18:1. A higher ratio means that you have to turn the steering wheel more to get the wheels to turn a given distance. However, less effort is required because of the higher gear ratio.
Generally, lighter, sportier cars have lower steering ratios than larger cars and trucks. The lower ratio gives the steering a quicker response -- you don't have to turn the steering wheel as much to get the wheels to turn a given distance -- which is a desirable trait in sports cars. These smaller cars are light enough that even with the lower ratio, the effort required to turn the steering wheel is not excessive.
Some cars have variable-ratio steering, which uses a rack-and-pinion gear-set that has a different tooth pitch (number of teeth per inch) in the center than it has on the outside. This makes the car respond quickly when starting a turn (the rack is near the center), and also reduces effort near the wheel's turning limits.
Power Rack-and-pinionWhen the rack-and-pinion is in a power-steering system, the rack has a slightly different design.
Part of the rack contains a cylinder with a piston in the middle. The piston is connected to the rack. There are two fluid ports, one on either side of the piston. Supplying higher-pressure fluid to one side of the piston forces the piston to move, which in turn moves the rack, providing the power assist.
We'll check out the components that provide the high-pressure fluid, as well as decide which side of the rack to supply it to, later in the article. First, let's take a look at another type of steering.
Recirculating-ball SteeringRecirculating-ball steering is used on many trucks and SUVs today. The linkage that turns the wheels is slightly different than on a rack-and-pinion system.
The recirculating-ball steering gear contains a worm gear. You can image the gear in two parts. The first part is a block of metal with a threaded hole in it. This block has gear teeth cut into the outside of it, which engage a gear that moves the pitman arm. The steering wheel connects to a threaded rod, similar to a bolt, that sticks into the hole in the block. When the steering wheel turns, it turns the bolt. Instead of twisting further into the block the way a regular bolt would, this bolt is held fixed so that when it spins, it moves the block, which moves the gear that turns the wheels.
Power steering in a recirculating-ball system works similarly to a rack-and-pinion system. Assist is provided by supplying higher-pressure fluid to one side of the block.
Now let's take a look at the other components that make up a power-steering system.
Power SteeringThere are a couple of key components in power steering in addition to the rack-and-pinion or recirculating-ball mechanism.
PumpThe hydraulic power for the steering is provided by a rotary-vane pump (see diagram below). This pump is driven by the car's engine via a belt and pulley. It contains a set of retractable vanes that spin inside an oval chamber.
As the vanes spin, they pull hydraulic fluid from the return line at low pressure and force it into the outlet at high pressure. The amount of flow provided by the pump depends on the car's engine speed. The pump must be designed to provide adequate flow when the engine is idling. As a result, the pump moves much more fluid than necessary when the engine is running at faster speeds.
The pump contains a pressure-relief valve to make sure that the pressure does not get too high, especially at high engine speeds when so much fluid is being pumped.
Rotary ValveA power-steering system should assist the driver only when he is exerting force on the steering wheel (such as when starting a turn). When the driver is not exerting force (such as when driving in a straight line), the system shouldn't provide any assist. The device that senses the force on the steering wheel is called the rotary valve.
The key to the rotary valve is a torsion bar. The torsion bar is a thin rod of metal that twists when torque is applied to it. The top of the bar is connected to the steering wheel, and the bottom of the bar is connected to the pinion or worm gear (which turns the wheels), so the amount of torque in the torsion bar is equal to the amount of torque the driver is using to turn the wheels. The more torque the driver uses to turn the wheels, the more the bar twists.
The input from the steering shaft forms the inner part of a spool-valve assembly. It also connects to the top end of the torsion bar. The bottom of the torsion bar connects to the outer part of the spool valve. The torsion bar also turns the output of the steering gear, connecting to either the pinion gear or the worm gear depending on which type of steering the car has.
Inside the rotary valve when you first start to turn the steering wheel. As the bar twists, it rotates the inside of the spool valve relative to the outside. Since the inner part of the spool valve is also connected to the steering shaft (and therefore to the steering wheel), the amount of rotation between the inner and outer parts of the spool valve depends on how much torque the driver applies to the steering wheel.
When the steering wheel is not being turned, both hydraulic lines provide the same amount of pressure to the steering gear. But if the spool valve is turned one way or the other, ports open up to provide high-pressure fluid to the appropriate line.
It turns out that this type of power-steering system is pretty inefficient. Let's take a look at some advances we'll see in coming years that will help improve efficiency.
The Future of Power SteeringSince the power-steering pump on most cars today runs constantly, pumping fluid all the time, it wastes horsepower. This wasted power translates into wasted fuel.You can expect to see several innovations that will improve fuel economy. One of the coolest ideas on the drawing board is the "steer-by-wire" or "drive-by-wire" system. These systems would completely eliminate the mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the steering, replacing it with a purely Electronic control system. Essentially, the steering wheel would work like the one you can buy for your home computer to play games. It would contain sensors that tell the car what the driver is doing with the wheel, and have some motors in it to provide the driver with feedback on what the car is doing. The output of these sensors would be used to control a motorized steering system. This would free up space in the engine compartment by eliminating the steering shaft. It would also reduce vibration inside the car.
In the past fifty years, car steering systems haven't changed much. But in the next decade, we'll see advances in car steering that will result in more efficient cars and a more comfortable ride.