The Physics of Towing
Everything you've just learned about how physics keeps your truck moving smoothly can be extrapolated onto towing.
If you have all-wheel drive, all four tires are connected to drive shafts and are thus receiving torque to move them. If you only have rear-wheel or front-wheel drive, fear not: The torque distributed to your drive wheels will cause the wheels that are along for the ride to move as well. Since they're connected to your truck, these wheels will move when the drive wheels begin to. The weight should be distributed evenly across the truck, which means that each wheel -- whether it's connected to a drive shaft or not -- faces an equal challenge.
Since your tires are where the rubber meets the road -- or, more the point, where the force of gravity pressing downward on your truck meets the normal force pushing upward against it -- this is where the weight's distributed. If the weight's distributed evenly, then the normal force it encounters is distributed evenly as well, since normal force is proportional to your truck's mass. This means that the normal force each tire encounters is about one-quarter the mass of your truck. This equal distribution of force leads to an equal amount of static and then kinetic force each tire encounters as it moves from its resting position to acceleration and finally constant velocity. So the torque that's enough to move one wheel will move all of them. If the weight of your truck isn't equally distributed, then tires supporting less weight will skid or slide as the torque they receive overcomes rather than equals the rolling friction it meets from the road.
This is as true with the four tires on your truck as it is with two or four more tires you'll add when you tow a trailer. That's because, as far as the laws of physics are concerned, when your trailer's hooked up to your truck it's considered a single unit. The truck's mass and the trailer's mass share a combined mass. This means that weight distribution remains important. If it's distributed properly, the tires -- whether there are four, six, eight or 50 -- will all face the same amount of friction as they cross the threshold and accelerate.
So how can a 5,000-pound truck tow a 10,000-pound load? The short answer is that it can't, unless it has the right kind of hitch. If you consult your truck's owner's manual, you'll see your truck has two towing capacities -- one for dead weight and one for towed weight. You'll also notice that the dead weight limit is about the same weight as your truck, while the towed weight capacity is abut three times higher. The reason is that towed weight capacities require a special hitch that -- you guessed it -- distributes the trailer's weight among the trailer's and truck's wheels.
The added weight of the trailer does require the engine of the coach vehicle to work harder to produce more torque than is required when the coach is traveling unencumbered. But if the weight is properly distributed within both the trailer and the coach vehicle, the static friction for each tire will be equal. So whether it's a truck weighing 5,000 pounds moving down the road, or one that's towing a 10,000-pound load, as long as the engine can produce enough torque to rotate the drive wheels without overcoming the rolling friction on the road, all other wheels will follow.
For more information on towing and other related topics, visit the next page.
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More Great Links
- Skocpol, William, PhD. Professor of Physics, Boston University. Personal correspondence. October 31, 2008.
- Townsend, Ben. "Static and kinetic friction." University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Fall 2002. http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/211_fall2002.web.dir/Ben_Townsend/StaticandKineticFriction.htm