How Differentials Work

By: Karim Nice & Talon Homer  | 

Differentials and Traction

The open differential always applies the same amount of torque to each wheel.

There are two factors that determine how much torque can be applied to the wheels: equipment and traction.


In dry conditions, when there is plenty of traction, the amount of torque applied to the wheels is limited by the engine and gearing; in a low-traction situation, such as when driving on ice, the amount of torque is limited to the greatest amount that will not cause a wheel to slip under those conditions.

So, even though a car may be able to produce more torque, there needs to be enough traction to transmit that torque to the ground. If you give the car more gas after the wheels start to slip, the wheels will just spin faster.

Driving On Ice

If you've ever driven on ice, you may know of a trick that makes acceleration easier: If you start out in second gear (or even third gear) instead of first, because of the gearing in the transmission, you will have less torque available to the wheels. This will make it easier to accelerate without spinning the wheels.

Now what happens if one of the drive wheels has good traction, and the other one is on ice? This is where the problem with open differentials comes in.

Remember that the open differential always applies the same torque to both wheels, and the maximum amount of torque is limited to the greatest amount that will not make the wheels slip. It doesn't take much torque to make a tire slip on ice. And when the wheel with good traction is only getting the very small amount of torque that can be applied to the wheel with less traction, your car isn't going to move very much.

Driving Off-Road

Another time open differentials might get you into trouble is when you are driving off-road. If you have a four-wheel drive truck or an SUV, with an open differential on both the front and the back, you could get stuck.

Now, remember — as we mentioned, the open differential always applies the same torque to both wheels. If one of the front tires and one of the back tires comes off the ground, they will just spin helplessly in the air, and you won't be able to move at all.

The solution to these problems is the limited slip differential (LSD), sometimes called positraction. Limited slip differentials use various mechanisms to allow normal differential action when going around turns. When a wheel slips, they allow more torque to be transferred to the non-slipping wheel. LSDs are also often included in two-wheel drive performance cars to improve acceleration and mitigate wheelspin in low gears.