Differentials are special gears which let the wheels of a vehicle spin at varying speeds. These gears were not just invented for automobiles either. In fact, they’ve been around since the days when wheels and mobilized vehicles were invented. The first evidence of any civilization using differentials dates back to the ancient Chinese of around 1,000 B.C. These differentials were used for their wagons, carts, and chariots so that these vehicles would not drag or slip. In modern times, differentials split the torque of the engine to each of the two front wheels (assuming it’s a front-wheel drive vehicle).
There are four main types of differentials available; open differential, limited-slip differential, locking differential, and torque-vectoring differential. If you own any type of vehicle, chances are that it has one of these differentials installed in it. Let’s examine how each type of differential functions and which type of vehicle it is best used for.
An open differential is a standard differential which can tolerate wheel speed variations or slips. If the road conditions are appropriate, the open differential lets the outer wheel of the vehicle rotate more quickly than the inner wheel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work so well when the road conditions are terrible. If there is a lot of ice or snow on the road, you may find the open differential not performing as well as it does on clearer road conditions. This happens because the engine torque is continuously getting transferred to each wheel no matter if it has traction or not. As a result, a tire that slips will continue to spin. The average motor vehicle has open differentials in it because they’re affordable to purchase and repair.
A limited-slip differential is like an open differential because it also transfers engine torque to each individual wheel of the vehicle. The difference is that an open differential would cause tire slippage if you accelerate heavily or turn a hard corner. On the other hand, a limited-differential reduces the amount of torque that is transferred to the slipping tire in order to prevent further slippage. This is the tire that doesn’t have as much resistance. Limited-slip differentials have plates and clutches which give tires the assistance they need to make those powerful turns at faster speeds. You’ll often see high-performance vehicles, such as race cars, using limited-slip differentials.
Locking differentials are commonly installed in vehicles that are designed for off-road driving. You may see them in some high-performance vehicles too. Basically, a locking differential features springs and clutches which allow a lock to be activated. Once this happens, power is transferred to the individual wheels equally regardless of how much traction they have. You could say the locking differential makes this a fixed axle. The main advantage here is that your tires can increase their traction on the road. After all, the torque is constantly flowing to the wheels without any limitations on a wheel with lower traction. This could be bad if you’re driving at high speeds on a straight road, but it is perfect for off-road driving.
The torque-vectoring differential is a highly advanced differential which is comprised of several electronics and sensory components. Their purpose is to collect information from other systems and sensors of the vehicle, such as the steering system, throttle position, and road surface. Once this information is received, it electronically activates a controller and clutches. Many high-performance vehicles use torque-vectoring differentials because of their sophistication. That is why they’re more expensive than the other differentials. But it is worth the money if you want a driving experience that is better than any you’ve had before.