That thing on the rear axle — the ball of gears allowing you to take a corner? Have you ever wondered about how it works? 

Why use a Differential?: When a car turns a corner, one wheel is on the “inside” of a turning arc, and the other wheel is on the “outside.” Consequently, the outside wheel has to turn faster than the inside one in order to cover the greater distance in the same amount of time. Thus, because the two wheels are not driven with the same speed, a differential is necessary. A car differential is placed halfway between the driving wheels, on either the front, rear, or both axes (depending on whether it’s a front-, rear-, or 4-wheel-drive car). In rear-wheel drive cars, the differential converts rotational motion of the transmission shaft which lies parallel to the car’s motion to rotational motion of the half-shafts (on the ends of which are the wheels), which lie perpendicular to the car’s motion.

The differential has three jobs:

  • To aim the engine power at the wheels
  • To act as the final gear reduction in the vehicle, slowing the rotational speed of the transmission one final time before it hits the wheels
  • To transmit the power to the wheels while allowing them to rotate at different speeds (This is the one that earned the differential its name.


Clutch-type Limited Slip Differential

The clutch type limited slip differential adds a spring pack and a set of clutches to the open differential.

If one of the wheels attached to a differential decides to hit some ice, for example, it slips and spins with all of the speed the differential has to distribute. Thus, a locking mechanism, or “limited slip differential” allows one wheel to slip or spin freely while some torque is delivered to the other wheel (hopefully on dry land!).

The clutch-type LSD is probably the most common version of the limited slip differential

This type of LSD has all of the same components as an open differential, but it adds a spring pack and a set of clutches. Some of these have a cone clutch that is just like the synchronizers in a manual transmission.

The spring pack pushes the side gears against the clutches, which are attached to the cage. Both side gears spin with the cage when both wheels are moving at the same speed, and the clutches aren’t really needed — the only time the clutches step in is when something happens to make one wheel spin faster than the other, as in a turn. The clutches fight this behavior, wanting both wheels to go the same speed. If one wheel wants to spin faster than the other, it must first overpower the clutch. The stiffness of the springs combined with the friction of the clutch determine how much torque it takes to overpower it.

Getting back to the situation in which one drive wheel is on the ice and the other one has good traction: With this limited slip differential, even though the wheel on the ice is not able to transmit much torque to the ground, the other wheel will still get the torque it needs to move. The torque supplied to the wheel not on the ice is equal to the amount of torque it takes to overpower the clutches. The result is that you can move forward, although still not with the full power of your car.


Locking and Torsen

differential locking

The locking differential is useful for serious off-road vehicles. This type of differential has the same parts as an open differential, but adds an electric, pneumatic or hydraulic mechanism to lock the two output pinions together.

This mechanism is usually activated manually by switch, and when activated, both wheels will spin at the same speed. If one wheel ends up off the ground, the other wheel won’t know or care. Both wheels will continue to spin at the same speed as if nothing had changed.

The Torsen differential* is a purely mechanical device; it has no electronics, clutches or viscous fluids.

The Torsen (from Torque Sensing) works as an open differential when the amount of torque going to each wheel is equal. As soon as one wheel starts to lose traction, the difference in torque causes the gears in the Torsen differential to bind together. The design of the gears in the differential determines the torque bias ratio. For instance, if a particular Torsen differential is designed with a 5:1 bias ratio, it is capable of applying up to five times more torque to the wheel that has good traction.

These devices are often used in high-performance all-wheel-drive vehicles. Like the viscous coupling, they are often used to transfer power between the front and rear wheels. In this application, the Torsen is superior to the viscous coupling because it transfers torque to the stable wheels before the actual slipping occurs.

However, if one set of wheels loses traction completely, the Torsen differential will be unable to supply any torque to the other set of wheels. The bias ratio determines how much torque can be transferred, and five times zero is zero.



The Hummer, uses Torsen® differentials on the front and rear axles. The owner’s manual for the Hummer proposes a novel solution to the problem of one wheel coming off the ground: Apply the brakes. By applying the brakes, torque is applied to the wheel that is in the air, and then five times that torque can go to the wheel with good traction.

About The Author

Mechanical Engineer, admin of . Experienced offroad and drifting driver. interested in: Rally, Rally raid (Paris-Dakar), internal combustion engines, 4x4 modifications, mechanical design.

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