All-Wheel Drive / Four-Wheel Drive Systems and Strategies

All-Wheel Drive / Four-Wheel Drive Systems and Strategies
Seoul 2000 FISITA World Automotive Congress
June 12-15, 2000, Seoul, Korea
All-Wheel Drive / Four-Wheel Drive Systems and Strategies
Sankar Mohan
New Venture Gear, Inc. Troy, MI 48083 USA
Modern Four-Wheel Drive (4WD) systems have become very sophisticated and infused with electronic control technology.
These 4WD vehicles offer the appeal of an active lifestyle made possible by the assurance of a safe and secure vehicle, onand off-road, along with the imp roved hauling and towing capabilities for people and equipment. The emphasis has been
shifting from mere traction enhancement to on-road safety and handling improvement. There has also been a successful
move to incorporate the above benefits in smaller, more fuel-efficient Front-Wheel-Drive (FWD) based vehicles generally
called All-Wheel Drive (AWD) systems. This paper attempts to explain the control tactics, strategies and the philosophies
behind various traction control systems.
Keywords: Four-Wheel-Drive, All-Wheel-Drive, Traction control
to describe the various functions and architectures. In this
and the following sections we will describe the generally
accepted nomenclature along with some of the regional
Four-Wheel Drive (4WD) systems have come a long
way since the 1940s. From simple mechanical devices
applied in military utility vehicles, they have evolved into
the sophisticated systems infused with control technology
that are available in modern, high speed, on-road vehicles.
The improved mobility attained in difficult terrain by
providing traction on all four tire patches was the major
incentive to incorporate 4WD systems in drive trains. The
early systems were cumbersome to engage into 4WD and
required driving skills beyond the capability of the average
driver. The popularity of 4WD vehicles has soared
because of the appeal of an active life style made possible
by the assurance of a safe and secure vehicle, on- and offroad, along with the improved hauling and towing
capabilities for people and equipment. Only lately have the
4WD systems themselves become more user friendly.
Since most people use the 4WD vehicles as on-road
transportation, the emphasis has been shifting from mere
traction enhancement to on-road safety and handling
improvement. At the same time, there has been a
successful move to incorporate the above benefits in
smaller, more fuel efficient front-wheel-drive (FWD) based
vehicles. These drive line architectures are generally called
All-Wheel Drive (AWD) systems. This paper attempts to
explain the control tactics and strategies and the
philosophies behind various traction control systems.
Towards this end, the paper also recounts for ready
reference, the basic vehicle dynamics principles involved
in the description of a vehicle's performance.
Figure 1 Steering Geometry
4WD/AWD systems were developed in many different
geographic markets and across different vehicle platforms,
and so there is no universally accepted set of terminology
Figure 2 Tire Patch
The Ackerman steering geometry of a typical front
wheel steered vehicle is shown in the Figure 1. As seen
from the drawing, during a turn, the outer wheels must
travel a longer path and so must rotate faster than the inner
wheels. Similarly, the front axle must turn faster than the
rear axle. If the driveline does not permit these differences
in speeds, there could be undesirable driveline wind-up,
especially on dry pavements where the relatively high
surface friction prevents the tires from slipping easily. This
could lead to poor fuel economy, undesirable tire
scrubbing (‘crow-hop’) and damage to the driveline even
during moderate maneuvers.
THE TRANSFER CASE – This may also be called Transfer
Gearbox, Power Take-off Unit, PTU or PTO. This is an
additional gearbox used to get the 4WD architecture. In
Rear Wheel Drive (RWD) based vehicles, the Transfer
Case distributes the torque to the two axles via the
propeller shafts. In Front Wheel Drive (FWD) based
vehicles, the Power Take Off Unit allows the drive shaft to
the rear axle to be connected to the transmission. The ratio
of the front axle torque (F%) to the rear axle torque (R%) is
called the torque split ratio (F:R) of the transfer case. Some
transfer cases have an added ‘low range’ to provide extra
gear reduction for extreme torque demands at lower
speeds. Typical transfer cases are designed to have
multiple modes of operation.
Depending on the
implementation, the selection of the operating mode could
be manual or electric and the switching times and the
preconditions for switching might vary. The primary
modes are described below.
Two Wheel Drive (2WD) Mode - In this mode only
one axle (typically the rear axle) is driven. The drive to
the other axle is disconnected. The operating torque
split ratio is 0:100.
Four Wheel Drive (4WD) Mode - Here, depending on
the nature of torque transfer to the axles, we can
define three sub-modes.
Part-time Mode - The front and rear axle drives are
rigidly coupled in the transfer case. Since the
driveline does not permit any speed
differentiation between the axles and would cause
driveline wind-up, this mode is recommended only
for ‘part-time’ use in off-road or loose surface
conditions where driveline wind-up is unlikely.
Depending on the road condition and the weight
over the axles, up to full torque could go to either
Full-time Mode - Both axles are driven at all times,
but an inter-axle differential permits the axles to
turn at different speeds as needed. This allows
the vehicle to be driven ‘full-time’ in this mode,
irrespective of the nature of the road surface,
without fear of driveline wind-up. With standard
bevel gear differentials the torque split is 50:50.
Planetary differentials can provide asymmetric
torque splits as needed. A system that operates
permanently in the full-time mode is sometimes
called the ‘All-the-Time 4WD’, 'All-Wheel-Drive'
or ‘AWD’. If the inter-axle differential is locked
out, then the mode reverts to a ‘part-time mode’.
On-Demand Mode - In this mode, the transfer
case operates primarily in the 2WD mode. Torque
is transferred to the secondary axle ‘on-demand’
or as needed, by modulating the transfer clutch
from ‘open’ to a rigidly coupled state, while
avoiding any driveline wind-up. The torque
modulation may be achieved by active
electronic/hydraulic control systems, or by
passive devices, based on wheel slip or wheel
Typical 4WD/AWD drivelines are shown in Figures 3
and 4. The engine rotation is modified by the transmission
and distributed to the wheels by the transfer case through
the propeller or drive shafts and the axles. The key
characteristics of the various elements relevant to traction
control will be summarized here.
Axle Shaft
Axle Shaft
Center Diff
Power Take-off
Axle Diff
Axle Diff
Axle Shaft
Axle Shaft
Figure 3 AWD Vehicle
Axle Shaft
Axle Shaft
Center Diff
Axle Shaft
Axle Diff
Transfer Case
Axle Diff
Axle Shaft
Figure 4 4WD Vehicle
THE ENGINE - Modern vehicles have engines that are
typically fuel injected and controlled by an electronic
control unit. Ignition spark control allows the engine
power to be controlled in small ranges, but with quicker
response times. Direct fuel control affords a wider range of
power regulation but with a somewhat slower response
THE TRANSMISSION - In manual transmissions, as the
name implies, the control is left up to the driver. Automatic
transmissions, especially the electronically controlled ones
can be easily integrated into traction control systems to
control the torque to the wheels.
torque, as described in the section on traction
control systems.
In addition to these basic modes, there could be
implementations that combine these modes. For
example, the system could have a clutch across the
center differential, capable of modulating the front axle
torque from a Full-time mode with the 30:70 torque
split of the center differential rather than from the 0:100
torque split of the 2WD mode.
AXLE – The axle consists of the structural housing,
differential and the drive shafts to each wheel. A propeller
shaft from the Transfer Case drives the input gear of the
axle differential. The axles allow the wheels to rotate at
different speeds during turns by distributing the torque
DIFFERENTIAL - The center differential is located in the
transfer case or the PTU, between the two outputs. The
axle differential is in the axle, between the two axle drive
The differential distributes the input rotation to the two
outputs that are allowed to turn at different speeds, and
can be thought of as a torque balancing device between
the two driven elements. A schematic drawing of a generic
(bevel gear or planetary) differential is shown in Figure 5.
The 'open' differential does not have the optional torque
bias device ‘x’ shown. In ‘true’ differentials, if one of the
outputs slows down, there is a corresponding speed up of
the other output. In other words, the input speed always
Figure 5 4WD Modes
through the axle differential. The rigid axle unit, which
integrates all above elements, is typically connected to the
chassis via the suspension elements. The independent
axle unit, housing just the differential is rigidly attached to
the chassis and half shafts and Constant Velocity (CV)
joints connect the outputs from the differential to the
wheels that are connected to the chassis via the
suspension elements. The axle drive shafts could be
permanently connected to the wheels (live axles) or could
permit disconnecting the wheel(s) (disconnect axles) to
prevent drag losses when the axle is not being driven. The
disconnect device could be a manual or a power-actuated
remains the average of the two output speeds. This
kinematic relationship also constrains the input torque in
such differentials to be limited by the smaller of the two
output torques. The biasing device ‘x’ across the
differential partially removes this limitation and allows the
differential to transmit more torque to the outputs than an
open differential. This biasing may be dependent on the
speed difference between the two outputs (speed sensitive
limited slip), the torque at the outputs (torque sensitive
limited slip) or some external criterion as determined by a
control logic (active, intelligent limited slip). In some
quasi-differential devices, the differential action is
achieved simply by permitting one output to overrun the
The primary motive forces on the vehicle are applied at
the tire patches in contact with the road surface. The total
maximum friction force at the tire patch is limited by the
contact load and the coefficient of friction (µ) with the
Figure 6
road. The longitudinal component of this force is the
maximum available tractive/braking force and the
transverse or lateral component is the maximum available
steering force. The actual traction and steering forces will
also depend on the wheel relative slip, the wheel slip angle
and the road condition as shown in Figures 7 and 8. It must
be noted that ‘on-road’ surfaces generate peak traction at
relatively low slip where as ‘off-road’ surfaces like gravel
generate maximum traction at much higher slip.
high and tires roll without much side-slip. But due to
imperfections in the steering geometry and driveline
couplings there could be some tire scuffing. This effect
would become pronounced if the drivetrain does not permit
speed differentiation either within or between the axles.
The driveline and suspension wind-up and subsequent
release of this energy, through tire slippage on the road
surface, results in an uneven combination of linear and
yaw motion. This movement known as 'crow-hop' could be
annoying in the least or cause driveline failure at the worst.
The effect also feeds back to the driver as a stiffening of
the steering effort.
Figure 7 Friction Circle
Referring to Figure 8, if the applied wheel drive torque is
increased, the wheel slip at the tire patch increases to
generate the traction. The initial slip mechanism is due to
elastic deformation of the tire walls. The slip gradually
increases as the treads start sliding on the road. Once the
applied torque exceeds the maximum traction available at
the tire patch, the wheel will get into a run-away slip
condition as may be seen in Figure 8. Even if only one of
the wheels slips, the traction at an axle is reduced due to its
influence on the other wheel through the open differential.
In addition to the loss of traction, the available steering
force also reduces at the slipping wheel and this affects
directional stability of the vehicle. As discussed earlier,
drivetrains, especially with open differentials will lose
overall traction at an axle if either or both of the two wheels
lose traction. This would happen if the road surface
provides a low coefficient of friction (µ) with the tire. It
could also happen if the load at the tire patch is reduced
due to dynamic load transfer or due to suspension effects.
During vehicle launch from low µ surfaces, tire spin up
should be avoided to reduce the chances of getting stuck.
On snow covered surfaces the problem occurs because the
spinning tire tends to push away the top layer, compact
the inner layer and polish it into an extremely low µ surface
further reducing available traction. On sand or mud, the
spinning action buries the wheel and increases the effort
needed to get out.
Tire spin up during launch, even with straightened
wheels, would cause the vehicle to be susceptible to yaw
disturbances and cause the rear end to swing around or
‘fishtail’. With steering input, as during cornering, the
vehicle behavior is very dependent on the speed. In low
speed turning maneuvers, the steering angles are typically
Figure 8 Traction vs Slip
At higher cornering speeds, the lateral accelerations
experienced by the vehicle become significant. Lateral
steering forces are required at the wheels to push the
vehicle into the desired path. This requires all the wheels
to operate under some side slip condition. As described in
the sections on tire patch mechanics and vehicle dynamics,
the load and the coefficient of friction limit the total friction
force at the tire. So acceleration or braking during
cornering could reduce the available lateral steering forces
at the tires. If this happens at the front wheels, the vehicle
would want to go straight, turn less than intended and
understeer. If the rear wheels have insufficient steering
force, they slide outward and the vehicle would turn into
the corner and oversteer. Any other phenomenon like
dynamic load transfer or camber change due to the
suspension will change the magnitude and or direction of
the steering forces at the tires and will influence the
cornering ability.
Braking also could affect the vehicle’s handling ability.
Premature lock up of the front wheel during braking will
cause loss of steering ability. If lock up occurs at the rear
wheels, the stability of the vehicle itself is compromised
and the vehicle might end up spinning about its vertical
axis due to amplification of any yaw disturbance.
The ideal drivetrain allows the driver to propel the
vehicle in the intended direction and speed in a manner
that promotes the ease and ability to maintain control. This
requires not only a capacity to respond to the driver's
inputs in a predictable manner but also the ability to feed
back useful information to the driver. In the final analysis,
it is the performance of the driver/vehicle system (loosely
called the 'handling') that is important in assessing the
success or limitation of a particular traction control
implementation. Although the primary contributor is the
drivetrain, the steering, suspension and braking systems
also influence the vehicle's handling performance.
Ultimately, the laws of physics dictate the static and
dynamic limits of performance of the vehicle under all road,
load and speed conditions.
The typical driver uses the vehicle, most of the time,
well below its dynamic limit. It is desirable to enhance the
tractive/braking ability and the directional stability of the
vehicle, thus allowing the driver to expand the envelope of
performance without reducing safety and the sense of
Limited Slip
Reapportion the applied torque among the wheels.
Tire Patch Torque Control
Control amount of Torque
Control Devices
maximum available tire force may be controlled by
adjusting the tire slip at the tire patch (Figures 2 and 8).
Most control systems leave the steering to the driver and
attempt to control the tire slip to achieve both traction and
stability improvement. Taking a closer look at Figure 8, we
realize that the operating point along the slip curve is
determined by the matching of the maximum available
resisting force at the tire patch and the applied torque at
the wheel. Under quasi steady-state operation, within the
peak limit, if the applied torque is altered, the tire slip
changes till a matching tire force can be generated.
Beyond the peak limit, of course, there is runaway slip of
the tire. This opens up three avenues for control.
Reduce Torque
Reduce applied
Absorb excess
Power Management
Selective Brake
Increase Torque
Active Torque
Figure 9: Tire Patch Torque Control
control. This in essence is the purpose of the traction
control system. To restate this in simpler terms, the traction
control system should improve the mobility at low speeds
and in difficult terrain by improving the tractive
performance, and improve the safety and handling at
higher speeds by improving the directional stability. To
the average driver, this would translate to better
performance and safer handling even under adverse
driving conditions. The ways in which traction and
directional stability might be compromised was described
in the previous section on vehicle dynamics.
This is the approach taken by all limited slip
differentials and on-demand torque transfer clutches.
Control the amount of applied torque in the drive train.
This is the approach taken by engine and transmission
control integration with traction control (power
Absorb the excess torque at the tire patch. This is the
approach taken by the brake based traction and
stability control systems (eg. ESP- Electronic Stability
Limited Slip Differentials And On-Demand Torque Transfer
Clutches. These devices may be passive devices with
operating characteristics dependent on some intrinsic
physical phenomenon inherent to the device or active
devices that use an external logic to control their
characteristic. Passive units widely used are the slip
sensitive mechanisms like the viscous or Gerodisc
couplings as well as the torque sensitive devices like the
Torsen or the Suretrac differentials. All active clutches use
a control system that utilizes other vehicle operating
parameters to decide when, how long and how strongly to
activate the clutch. The extent of these control systems is
defined by technical considerations like the level of
complexity and adaptations required as well as by cost
considerations. Obviously, the active clutches lend
themselves to integration with other vehicle subsystems
for a more effective overall traction and stability control
Before we discuss the strategies of control, let us look
at the tactics available for control. Since the only active
external forces on the vehicle comes from the tire patches,
our sole option is to control or influence the tire patch
dynamics. As seen earlier, the effective maximum friction
force obtainable at each tire patch is governed by the
normal force and the available coefficient of friction, both
of which are difficult to influence. Many independent
suspension systems maintain tire/ground contact by
allowing a larger jounce range for the wheels. Some
advanced active suspension control systems do adjust the
effective dynamic load at the tire patch. But mostly we
have control over only two of the key elements. First, the
apportioning of the tire force between the tractive and
steering forces may be controlled by manipulating the tire
slip angle via the steering (Figures 2 and 7). Second, the
Power Management. As mentioned earlier, most modern
engines and automatic transmissions are electronically
controlled and may easily be adapted and integrated into
the traction and stability control system.
Brake Based Traction And Stability Control Systems.
Lately a number of systems have been introduced in the
market based on the principle of selectively applying the
individual wheel brakes to achieve slip reduction, descent
control or yaw control.
Yaw Control. Yaw motion is the rotation of the vehicle
about the vertical axis through its center of mass and the
'yaw-rate' is the speed of that rotation. The effect of the
external applied forces about the axis through the center of
mass is the ‘yaw-moment’. Vehicle motion along the road
surface may be thought of as a combination of linear and
oversteer may be countered by the application of the outer,
front wheel brake and understeer may be countered by
application of the inner, rear wheel brake. Although quick
acting, effective and acceptable, this method is essentially
a braking maneuver and so reduces the speed performance
Recently some carmakers have introduced yaw control
based on intentionally varying the torque split between the
wheels to generate the desired yaw-moment. The additive
tractive effort might give them some advantage over the
subtractive nature of the brake-based systems. It is too
early to say whether these systems offer significant
performance improvements consistent with the added
mechanical complexity, weight and cost.
There is no universal strategy that will satisfy all types
of drivers under all kinds of driving conditions. The
particular strategy employed depends on the limitations of
the vehicle, the philosophy behind the calibration and of
course cost. Advances in electronics and miniaturization
and micromachined sensors have allowed the development
of sophisticated systems that are fast enough to do the
real time computations necessary and yet are small enough
to be packaged and affordable. As the cost of providing
advanced technology comes down, it becomes feasible to
apply it more universally. It also becomes increasingly
desirable to coordinate and integrate the control of the
various vehicle subsystems like engine, transmission,
steering, brakes and suspension and benefit from their
interactions rather than allow them to operate
The philosophy that defines the calibration or tuning of
the control system is dependent on the relative emphasis
placed on making the vehicle safer for even the unskilled
driver and the desire to enlarge the operating envelope of
the vehicle under adverse driving conditions. The control
system should minimize abrupt changes in the behavior of
the vehicle within its extended operating envelope. It
should also be predictable and provide sufficient feedback
and warning to the driver when approaching the vehicle’s
critical dynamic limits.
Some carmakers, with safety in mind, have chosen to
intervene aggressively and early on to prevent the driver
from pushing the vehicle beyond ‘safe’ limits. This
approach necessarily involves power management and
takes away absolute throttle control from the driver close
to these limits. Other manufacturers, with an eye on
performance, have allowed the driver some leeway in
applying minor corrections using steering, throttle and
brake and enforce throttle and brake control only to
prevent the vehicle from losing total control and becoming
Many of the current systems allow the driver to switch
off the traction control setting. It is quite possible that in
the future, manufacturers can allow the driver the option of
a graduated calibration setting somewhat similar to the
Intended Path
outer front wheel
is braked
inner rear wheel
is braked
Figure 10 Yaw Control
yaw motion. Ideally, during straight line launch, there is no
yaw motion. Any yaw indicates an imbalance or left to
right assymetry in the tractive forces at the wheels. During
cornering, the vehicle yaws at a rate proportional to the
linear speed (V) and inversely proportional to the turning
radius (r). Under rolling or no-slip conditions, the steering
angle, wheelbase and the track of the vehicle determine its
turning radius. The vehicle also experiences a lateral
acceleration corresponding to (V2/r). By measuring the
individual wheel speeds, steering angle, throttle position,
brake pressure and lateral acceleration, the control system
can determine the driver’s intent and the desired yaw-rate.
To judge the vehicle’s response to the driver input
requires the additional measurement of the actual yaw-rate
using a yaw-rate sensor. Comparing the desired to the
actual yaw-rate allows the controller to apply corrective
The brake based yaw-rate control is an extension of the
Antilock Brake System (ABS) and shares many of its
components. The control program selectively applies the
brakes of the four wheels to create a correcting moment to
offset the yaw-rate. Typically, as illustrated in Figure 10,
‘soft’ and ‘sporty’ setting seen in some electronically
controlled automatic transmissions.
[3] Ikushima, Yoshihiro et al, A Study on the Effects of the
Active Yaw Moment Control, (SAE 950303), 1995
[4] Matsuo, Yoshiaki et al, Intelligent Four-Wheel-Drive
System, (SAE 930670), 1993.
[5] Mohan, Sankar K. et al, A Survey of 4WD Traction
Control Systems and Strategies, (SAE 952644), 1995
[6] Mohan, Sankar K., AWD/4WD Systems and Strategies,
Advanced Transmission Design & Performance Vol.8,
(GPC'99), 1999.
[7] Ohba, Mitsuru et al, Development of a New
Electronically Controlled 4WD System: Toyota
Active Torque Control 4WD, (SAE 1999-01-0744),
[8] Shinohara, Minoru et al, Nissan Electronically
Controlled Four Speed Automatic Transmission,
(SAE 890530), 1989.
[9] Yamaguchi, Jack, Toyota Vehicle Stability Control
System., Automotive Engineering, Aug. 1995.
[10] Yamomoto, M., Active Control Strategy for Improved
Handling and Safety, (SAE 911902), 1991.
[11] Zomotor, A. et al, Mercedes - Benz 4MATIC, An
Electronically Controlled Four Wheel Drive System
for Improved Active Safety., (SAE 861371), 1986.
Even though there will always be a market segment that
utilizes the simp le, stand-alone transfer cases and PTUs,
the advanced traction control systems of the future will
benefit from integration with the other subsystems like
engine, transmission, brakes and suspension. The thrust
will be to enhance the traction, stability and safety of the
vehicles under adverse, off-road as well as high speed onroad driving conditions. The specific control strategy
employed should take into consideration the nature of the
vehicle, the anticipated driving pattern, the expectations of
the driver in that market segment and the relative emphasis
placed on safety and performance.
advancements will ensure that future traction control
systems will be more transparent, safer, lighter, more
efficient and more complex in a ‘systems’ sense.
The author wishes to thank the numerous professional
colleagues who have enriched the author’s knowledge and
experience of the drivetrain technology. The author is
especially grateful to Dan Miller for his assistance in
preparing this paper.
[1] Gillespie, Thomas D., Fundamentals of Vehicle
Dynamics, SAE Publications Book, 1992.
[2] Hoeck, Michael., The Influence of Various 4WD
Driveline Configurations on Handling and Traction
on Low Friction Surfaces, (SAE 1999-01-0743), 1999
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