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Automobile handling and vehicle handling are descriptions of the way a wheeled vehicle responds and reacts to the inputs of a driver, as well as how it moves along a track or road. It is commonly judged by how a vehicle performs particularly during cornering, acceleration, and braking as well as on the vehicle's directional stability when moving in steady state condition.
In the automotive industry, handling and braking are the major components of a vehicle's "active" safety, as well as its ability to perform in Auto Racing. The maximum lateral acceleration is sometimes discussed separately as "road holding". (This discussion is directed at road vehicles with at least three wheels, but some of it may apply to other ground vehicles). Automobiles driven on public roads whose engineering requirements emphasize handling over comfort and passenger space are named sports cars.
The center of mass height, relative to the track, determines load transfer (related to, but not exactly weight transfer) from side to side and causes body lean. When tires of a vehicle provide a centripetal force to pull it around a turn, the momentum of the vehicle actuates load transfer in a direction going from the vehicle's current position to a point on a path tangent to the vehicle's path. This load transfer presents itself in the form of body lean. In unfortunate circumstances, the vehicle may roll over.
Height of the center of mass relative to the wheelbase determines load transfer between front and rear. The car's momentum acts at its center of mass to tilt the car forward or backward, respectively during braking and acceleration. Since it is only the downward force that changes and not the location of the center of mass, the effect on over/under steer is opposite to that of an actual change in the center of mass. When a car is braking, the downward load on the front tires increases and that on the rear decreases, with corresponding change in their ability to take sideways load.
|Dodge Ram B-150||1987||85 centimetres (33 in)|
|Chevrolet Tahoe||1998||72 centimetres (28 in)|
|Lotus Elise||2000||47 centimetres (19 in)|
|Tesla Model S||2014||46 centimetres (18 in)|
|Chevrolet Corvette (C7) Z51||2014||44.5 centimetres (18 in)|
|Alfa Romeo 4C||2013||40 centimetres (16 in)|
|Formula 1 Car||2017||25 centimetres (10 in)|
In steady-state cornering, front-heavy cars tend to understeer and rear-heavy cars to oversteer (Understeer & Oversteer explained), all other things being equal. The mid-engine design seeks to achieve the ideal center of mass, though front-engine design has the advantage of permitting a more practical engine-passenger-baggage layout. All other parameters being equal, at the hands of an expert driver a neutrally balanced mid-engine car can corner faster, but a FR (front-engined, rear-wheel drive) layout car is easier to drive at the limit.
The rearward weight bias preferred by sports and racing cars results from handling effects during the transition from straight-ahead to cornering. During corner entry the front tires, in addition to generating part of the lateral force required to accelerate the car's center of mass into the turn, also generate a torque about the car's vertical axis that starts the car rotating into the turn. However, the lateral force being generated by the rear tires is acting in the opposite torsional sense, trying to rotate the car out of the turn. For this reason, a car with "50/50" weight distribution will understeer on initial corner entry. To avoid this problem, sports and racing cars often have a more rearward weight distribution. In the case of pure racing cars, this is typically between "40/60" and "35/65". This gives the front tires an advantage in overcoming the car's moment of inertia (yaw angular inertia), thus reducing corner-entry understeer.
Using wheels and tires of different sizes (proportional to the weight carried by each end) is a lever automakers can use to fine tune the resulting over/understeer characteristics.
This increases the time it takes to settle down and follow the steering. It depends on the (square of the) height and width, and (for a uniform mass distribution) can be approximately calculated by the equation: .
Greater width, then, though it counteracts center of gravity height, hurts handling by increasing angular inertia. Some high performance cars have light materials in their fenders and roofs partly for this reason
Unless the vehicle is very short, compared to its height or width, these are about equal. Angular inertia determines the rotational inertia of an object for a given rate of rotation. The yaw angular inertia tends to keep the direction the car is pointing changing at a constant rate. This makes it slower to swerve or go into a tight curve, and it also makes it slower to turn straight again. The pitch angular inertia detracts from the ability of the suspension to keep front and back tire loadings constant on uneven surfaces and therefore contributes to bump steer. Angular inertia is an integral over the square of the distance from the center of gravity, so it favors small cars even though the lever arms (wheelbase and track) also increase with scale. (Since cars have reasonable symmetrical shapes, the off-diagonal terms of the angular inertia tensor can usually be ignored.) Mass near the ends of a car can be avoided, without re-designing it to be shorter, by the use of light materials for bumpers and fenders or by deleting them entirely. If most of the weight is in the middle of the car then the vehicle will be easier to spin, and therefore will react quicker to a turn.
Automobile suspensions have many variable characteristics, which are generally different in the front and rear and all of which affect handling. Some of these are: spring rate, damping, straight ahead camber angle, camber change with wheel travel, roll center height and the flexibility and vibration modes of the suspension elements. Suspension also affects unsprung weight.
The flexing of the frame interacts with the suspension. (See below.)
The following types of springs are commonly used for automobile suspension, variable rate springs and linear rate springs. When a load is applied to a linear rate spring the spring compresses an amount directly proportional to the load applied. This type of spring is commonly used in road racing applications when ride quality is not a concern. A linear spring will behave the same at all times. This provides predictable handling characteristics during high speed cornering, acceleration and braking. Variable springs have low initial springs rates. The spring rate gradually increases as it is compressed. In simple terms the spring becomes stiffer as it is compressed. The ends of the spring are wound tighter to produce a lower spring rate. When driving this cushions small road imperfections improving ride quality. However once the spring is compressed to a certain point the spring is not wound as tight providing a higher (stiffer) spring rate. This prevents excessive suspension compression and prevents dangerous body roll, which could lead to a roll over. Variable rate springs are used in cars designed for comfort as well as off road racing vehicles. In off road racing they allow a vehicle to absorb the violent shock from a jump effectively as well as absorb small bumps along the off road terrain effectively.
The severe handling vice of the TR3B and related cars was caused by running out of suspension travel. (See below.) Other vehicles will run out of suspension travel with some combination of bumps and turns, with similarly catastrophic effect. Excessively modified cars also may encounter this problem.
In general, softer rubber, higher hysteresis rubber and stiffer cord configurations increase road holding and improve handling. On most types of poor surfaces, large diameter wheels perform better than lower wider wheels. The depth of tread remaining greatly affects aquaplaning (riding over deep water without reaching the road surface). Increasing tire pressures reduces their slip angle, but lessening the contact area is detrimental in usual surface conditions and should be used with caution.
The amount a tire meets the road is an equation between the weight of the car and the type (and size) of its tire. A 1000 kg car can depress a 185/65/15 tire more than a 215/45/15 tire longitudinally thus having better linear grip and better braking distance not to mention better aquaplaning performance, while the wider tires have better (dry) cornering resistance.
The contemporary chemical make-up of tires is dependent of the ambient and road temperatures. Ideally a tire should be soft enough to conform to the road surface (thus having good grip), but be hard enough to last for enough duration (distance) to be economically feasible. It is usually a good idea having different set of summer and winter tires for climates having these temperatures.
The axle track provides the resistance to lateral weight transfer and body lean. The wheelbase provides resistance to longitudinal weight transfer and to pitch angular inertia, and provides the torque lever arm to rotate the car when swerving. The wheelbase, however, is less important than angular inertia (polar moment) to the vehicle's ability to swerve quickly.
The wheelbase contribute to the vehicle's turning radius, which is also a handling characteristic.
Ignoring the flexing of other components, a car can be modeled as the sprung weight, carried by the springs, carried by the unsprung weight, carried by the tires, carried by the road. Unsprung weight is more properly regarded as a mass which has its own inherent inertia separate from the rest of the vehicle. When a wheel is pushed upwards by a bump in the road, the inertia of the wheel will cause it to be carried further upward above the height of the bump. If the force of the push is sufficiently large, the inertia of the wheel will cause the tire to completely lift off the road surface resulting in a loss of traction and control. Similarly when crossing into a sudden ground depression, the inertia of the wheel slows the rate at which it descends. If the wheel inertia is large enough, the wheel may be temporarily separated from the road surface before it has descended back into contact with the road surface.
This unsprung weight is cushioned from uneven road surfaces only by the compressive resilience of the tire (and wire wheels if fitted), which aids the wheel in remaining in contact with the road surface when the wheel inertia prevents close-following of the ground surface. However, the compressive resilience of the tire results in rolling resistance which requires additional kinetic energy to overcome, and the rolling resistance is expended in the tire as heat due to the flexing of the rubber and steel bands in the sidewalls of the tires. To reduce rolling resistance for improved fuel economy and to avoid overheating and failure of tires at high speed, tires are designed to have limited internal damping.
So the "wheel bounce" due to wheel inertia, or resonant motion of the unsprung weight moving up and down on the springiness of the tire, is only poorly damped, mainly by the dampers or shock absorbers of the suspension. For these reasons, high unsprung weight reduces road holding and increases unpredictable changes in direction on rough surfaces (as well as degrading ride comfort and increasing mechanical loads).
This unsprung weight includes the wheels and tires, usually the brakes, plus some percentage of the suspension, depending on how much of the suspension moves with the body and how much with the wheels; for instance a solid axle suspension is completely unsprung. The main factors that improve unsprung weight are a sprung differential (as opposed to live axle) and inboard brakes. (The De Dion tube suspension operates much as a live axle does, but represents an improvement because the differential is mounted to the body, thereby reducing the unsprung weight.) Wheel materials and sizes will also have an effect. Aluminium alloy wheels are common due to their weight characteristics which help to reduce unsprung mass. Magnesium alloy wheels are even lighter but corrode easily.
Since only the brakes on the driving wheels can easily be inboard, the Citroën 2CV had inertial dampers on its rear wheel hubs to damp only wheel bounce.
Aerodynamic forces are generally proportional to the square of the air speed, therefore car aerodynamics become rapidly more important as speed increases. Like darts, aeroplanes, etc., cars can be stabilised by fins and other rear aerodynamic devices. However, in addition to this cars also use downforce or "negative lift" to improve road holding. This is prominent on many types of racing cars, but is also used on most passenger cars to some degree, if only to counteract the tendency for the car to otherwise produce positive lift.
In addition to providing increased adhesion, car aerodynamics are frequently designed to compensate for the inherent increase in oversteer as cornering speed increases. When a car corners, it must rotate about its vertical axis as well as translate its center of mass in an arc. However, in a tight-radius (lower speed) corner the angular velocity of the car is high, while in a longer-radius (higher speed) corner the angular velocity is much lower. Therefore, the front tires have a more difficult time overcoming the car's moment of inertia during corner entry at low speed, and much less difficulty as the cornering speed increases. So the natural tendency of any car is to understeer on entry to low-speed corners and oversteer on entry to high-speed corners. To compensate for this unavoidable effect, car designers often bias the car's handling toward less corner-entry understeer (such as by lowering the front roll center), and add rearward bias to the aerodynamic downforce to compensate in higher-speed corners. The rearward aerodynamic bias may be achieved by an airfoil or "spoiler" mounted near the rear of the car, but a useful effect can also be achieved by careful shaping of the body as a whole, particularly the aft areas.
In recent years, aerodynamics have become an area of increasing focus by racing teams as well as car manufacturers. Advanced tools such as wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) have allowed engineers to optimize the handling characteristics of vehicles. Advanced wind tunnels such as Wind Shear's Full Scale, Rolling Road, Automotive Wind Tunnel recently built in Concord, North Carolina have taken the simulation of on-road conditions to the ultimate level of accuracy and repeatability under very controlled conditions. CFD has similarly been used as a tool to simulate aerodynamic conditions but through the use of extremely advanced computers and software to duplicate the car's design digitally then "test" that design on the computer.
The coefficient of friction of rubber on the road limits the magnitude of the vector sum of the transverse and longitudinal force. So the driven wheels or those supplying the most braking tend to slip sideways. This phenomenon is often explained by use of the circle of forces model.
One reason that sports cars are usually rear wheel drive is that power induced oversteer is useful, to a skilled driver, for tight curves. The weight transfer under acceleration has the opposite effect and either may dominate, depending on the conditions. Inducing oversteer by applying power in a front wheel drive car is possible via proper use of "Left-foot braking." In any case, this is not an important safety issue, because power is not normally used in emergency situations. Using low gears down steep hills may cause some oversteer.
The effect of braking on handling is complicated by load transfer, which is proportional to the (negative) acceleration times the ratio of the center of gravity height to the wheelbase. The difficulty is that the acceleration at the limit of adhesion depends on the road surface, so with the same ratio of front to back braking force, a car will understeer under braking on slick surfaces and oversteer under hard braking on solid surfaces. Most modern cars combat this by varying the distribution of braking in some way. This is important with a high center of gravity, but it is also done on low center of gravity cars, from which a higher level of performance is expected.
Depending on the driver, steering force and transmission of road forces back to the steering wheel and the steering ratio of turns of the steering wheel to turns of the road wheels affect control and awareness. Play--free rotation of the steering wheel before the wheels rotate--is a common problem, especially in older model and worn cars. Another is friction. Rack and pinion steering is generally considered the best type of mechanism for control effectiveness. The linkage also contributes play and friction. Caster--offset of the steering axis from the contact patch--provides some of the self-centering tendency.
Precision of the steering is particularly important on ice or hard packed snow where the slip angle at the limit of adhesion is smaller than on dry roads.
The steering effort depends on the downward force on the steering tires and on the radius of the contact patch. So for constant tire pressure, it goes like the 1.5 power of the vehicle's weight. The driver's ability to exert torque on the wheel scales similarly with his size. The wheels must be rotated farther on a longer car to turn with a given radius. Power steering reduces the required force at the expense of feel. It is useful, mostly in parking, when the weight of a front-heavy vehicle exceeds about ten or fifteen times the driver's weight, for physically impaired drivers and when there is much friction in the steering mechanism.
Four-wheel steering has begun to be used on road cars (Some WW II reconnaissance vehicles had it). It relieves the effect of angular inertia by starting the whole car moving before it rotates toward the desired direction. It can also be used, in the other direction, to reduce the turning radius. Some cars will do one or the other, depending on the speed.
Steering geometry changes due to bumps in the road may cause the front wheels to steer in different directions together or independent of each other. The steering linkage should be designed to minimize this effect.
Electronic stability control (ESC) is a computerized technology that improves the safety of a vehicle's stability by attempting to detect and prevent skids. When ESC detects loss of steering control, the system applies individual brakes to help "steer" the vehicle where the driver wants to go. Braking is automatically applied to individual wheels, such as the outer front wheel to counter oversteer, or the inner rear wheel to counter understeer.
The stability control of some cars may not be compatible with some driving techniques, such as power induced over-steer. It is therefore, at least from a sporting point of view, preferable that it can be disabled.
Of course things should be the same, left and right, for road cars. Camber affects steering because a tire generates a force towards the side that the top is leaning towards. This is called camber thrust. Additional front negative camber is used to improve the cornering ability of cars with insufficient camber gain.
The frame may flex with load, especially twisting on bumps. Rigidity is considered to help handling. At least it simplifies the suspension engineers work. Some cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL have had high doors to allow a stiffer frame.
Handling is a property of the car, but different characteristics will work well with different drivers.
The more experience a person has with a car or type of car the more likely they will be to take full advantage of its handling characteristics under adverse conditions.
Having to withstand "g forces" in his/her arms interferes with a driver's precise steering. In a similar manner, a lack of support for the seating position of the driver may cause them to move around as the car undergoes rapid acceleration (through cornering, taking off or braking). This interferes with precise control inputs, making the car more difficult to control.
Being able to reach the controls easily is also an important consideration, especially if a car is being driven hard.
In some circumstances, good support may allow a driver to retain some control, even after a minor accident or after the first stage of an accident.
Weather affects handling by changing the amount of available traction on a surface. Different tires do best in different weather. Deep water is an exception to the rule that wider tires improve road holding. (See aquaplaning under tires, below.)
Cars with relatively soft suspension and with low unsprung weight are least affected by uneven surfaces, while on flat smooth surfaces the stiffer the better. Unexpected water, ice, oil, etc. are hazards.
When any wheel leaves contact with the road there is a change in handling, so the suspension should keep all four (or three) wheels on the road in spite of hard cornering, swerving and bumps in the road. It is very important for handling, as well as other reasons, not to run out of suspension travel and "bottom" or "top".
It is usually most desirable to have the car adjusted for a small amount of understeer, so that it responds predictably to a turn of the steering wheel and the rear wheels have a smaller slip angle than the front wheels. However this may not be achievable for all loading, road and weather conditions, speed ranges, or while turning under acceleration or braking. Ideally, a car should carry passengers and baggage near its center of gravity and have similar tire loading, camber angle and roll stiffness in front and back to minimise the variation in handling characteristics. A driver can learn to deal with excessive oversteer or understeer, but not if it varies greatly in a short period of time.
The most important common handling failings are;
Ride quality and handling have always been a compromise - technology has over time allowed automakers to combine more of both features in the same vehicle. High levels of comfort are difficult to reconcile with a low center of gravity, body roll resistance, low angular inertia, support for the driver, steering feel and other characteristics that make a car handle well.
For ordinary production cars, manufactures err towards deliberate understeer as this is safer for inexperienced or inattentive drivers than is oversteer. Other compromises involve comfort and utility, such as preference for a softer smoother ride or more seating capacity.
Inboard brakes improve both handling and comfort but take up space and are harder to cool. Large engines tend to make cars front or rear heavy. Fuel economy, staying cool at high speeds, ride comfort and long wear all tend to conflict with road holding, while wet, dry, deep water and snow road holding are not exactly compatible. A-arm or wishbone front suspension tends to give better handling, because it provides the engineers more freedom to choose the geometry, and more road holding, because the camber is better suited to radial tires, than MacPherson strut, but it takes more space.
The older Live axle rear suspension technology, familiar from the Ford Model T, is still widely used in most sport utility vehicles and trucks, often for the purposes of durability (and cost). The live axle suspension is still used in some sports cars, like the Ford Mustang (model years before 2015), and is better for drag racing, but generally has problems with grip on bumpy corners, fast corners and stability at high speeds on bumpy straights.
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Lowering the center of gravity will always help the handling (as well as reduce the chance of roll-over). This can be done to some extent by using plastic windows (or none) and light roof, hood (bonnet) and trunk (boot) lid materials, by reducing the ground clearance, etc. Increasing the track with "reversed" wheels will have a similar effect, but the wider the car the less spare room it has on the road and the farther it may have to swerve to miss an obstacle. Stiffer springs and/or shocks, both front and rear, will generally improve handling on close to perfect surfaces, while worsening handling on less-than-perfect road conditions by "skipping" the car (and destroying grip), thus making handling the vehicle difficult. Aftermarket performance suspension kits are usually readily available.
Lighter (mostly aluminum or magnesium alloy) wheels improve handling as well as ride comfort, by lessening unsprung weight.
Moment of inertia can be reduced by using lighter bumpers and wings (fenders), or none at all.
Fixing understeer or oversteer conditions is achieved by either an increase or decrease in grip on the front or rear axles. If the front axle has more grip than a similar vehicle with neutral steer characteristics, the vehicle will oversteer. The oversteering vehicle may be "tuned" by hopefully increasing rear axle grip, or alternatively by reducing front axle grip. The opposite is true for an understeering vehicle (rear axle has excess grip, fixed by increasing front grip or reducing rear grip). The following actions will have the tendency to "increase the grip" of an axle. Increasing moment arm distance to cg, reducing lateral load transfer (softening shocks, softening sway bars, increasing track width), increasing tire contact patch size, increasing the longitudinal load transfer to that axle, and decreasing tire pressure.
|Component||Reduce Under-steer||Reduce Over-steer|
|Weight distribution||center of gravity towards rear||center of gravity towards front|
|Front shock absorber||softer||stiffer|
|Rear shock absorber||stiffer||softer|
|Front sway bar||softer||stiffer|
|Rear sway bar||stiffer||softer|
|Front tire selection1||larger contact area²||smaller contact area|
|Rear tire selection||smaller contact area||larger contact area²|
|Front wheel rim width||larger²||smaller|
|Rear wheel rim width||smaller||larger²|
|Front tire pressure||lower pressure||higher pressure|
|Rear tire pressure||higher pressure||lower pressure|
|Front wheel camber||increase negative camber||reduce negative camber|
|Rear wheel camber||reduce negative camber||increase negative camber|
|Front height (because these
usually affect camber
and roll resistance)
|lower front end||raise front end|
|Rear height||raise rear end||lower rear end|
|Front toe in||decrease||increase|
|Rear toe in||decrease||increase|
|1) Tire contact area can be increased by using tires with fewer grooves in the tread pattern. Of course fewer grooves has the opposite effect in wet weather or other poor road conditions.
2) Considering same tire width, and up to a point for the tire width.
Certain vehicles can be involved in a disproportionate share of single-vehicle accidents; their handling characteristics may play a role:
The Lotus Elise has a kinematic roll center height of 30mm above the ground and a center of gravity height of 470mm [18½"]. The Lotus Elise RCH is 6% the height of the CG, meaning 6% of lateral force is transferred through the suspension arms and 94% is transferred through the springs and dampers.
Its center-of-gravity height--17.5 inches--is the lowest we've yet measured
the centre of gravity is just 40cm off the ground
In the wet surface maneuver, the unfamiliar group performed worse than the familiar group.