This article is primarily about four-wheeled (or more) vehicle suspension. For information on two-wheeled vehicles' suspensions see the suspension (motorcycle), motorcycle fork, bicycle suspension, and bicycle fork articles.
Ancient military engineers used leaf springs in the form of bows to power their siege engines, with little success at first. The use of leaf springs in catapults was later refined and made to work years later. Springs were not only made of metal, a sturdy tree branch could be used as a spring, such as with a bow.
The British steel springs were not well suited for use on America's rough roads of the time, and could even cause coaches to collapse if cornered too fast. In the 1820s, the Abbot Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire developed a system whereby the bodies of stagecoaches were supported on leather straps called "thoroughbraces", which gave a swinging motion instead of the jolting up and down of a spring suspension (the stagecoach itself was sometimes called a "thoroughbrace").
In 1903 Mors of Germany first fitted an automobile with shock absorbers. In 1920 Leyland used torsion bars in a suspension system. In 1922 independent front suspension was pioneered on the Lancia Lambda and became more common in mass market cars from 1932.
Springs that are too hard or too soft will both effectively cause the vehicle to have no suspension at all. Vehicles that commonly experience suspension loads heavier than normal have heavy or hard springs with a spring rate close to the upper limit for that vehicle's weight. This allows the vehicle to perform properly under a heavy load when control is limited by the inertia of the load. Riding in an empty truck used for carrying loads can be uncomfortable for passengers because of its high spring rate relative to the weight of the vehicle. A race car would also be described as having heavy springs and would also be uncomfortably bumpy. However, even though we say they both have heavy springs, the actual spring rates for a 2000 lb race car and a 10,000 lb truck are very different. A luxury car, taxi, or passenger bus would be described as having soft springs. Vehicles with worn out or damaged springs ride lower to the ground which reduces the overall amount of compression available to the suspension and increases the amount of body lean. Performance vehicles can sometimes have spring rate requirements other than vehicle weight and load.
Spring rate is confined to a narrow interval by the weight of the vehicle, the load the vehicle will carry, and to a lesser extent by suspension geometry and performance desires.
Spring rates typically have units of N/mm (or lbf/in). An example of a linear spring rate is 500 lbf/in. For every inch the spring is compressed, it exerts 500 lbf. A non-linear spring rate is one for which the relation between the spring's compression and the force exerted cannot be fitted adequately to a linear model. For example, the first inch exerts 500 lbf force, the second inch exerts an additional 550 lbf (for a total of 1050 lbf), the third inch exerts another 600 lbf (for a total of 1650 lbf). In contrast a 500 lbf/in linear spring compressed to 3 inches will only exert 1500 lbf.
The spring rate of a coil spring may be calculated by a simple algebraic equation or it may be measured in a spring testing machine. The spring constant k can be calculated as follows:
Wheel rate is usually equal to or considerably less than the spring rate. Commonly, springs are mounted on control arms, swing arms or some other pivoting suspension member. Consider the example above where the spring rate was calculated to be 500lbs/inch, if you were to move the wheel 1 inch (without moving the car), the spring more than likely compresses a smaller amount. Lets assume the spring moved 0.75 inches, the lever arm ratio would be 0.75 to 1. The wheel rate is calculated by taking the square of the ratio (0.5625) times the spring rate. Squaring the ratio is because the ratio has two effects on the wheel rate. The ratio applies to both the force and distance traveled.
Wheel rate on independent suspension is fairly straight-forward. However, special consideration must be taken with some non-independent suspension designs. Take the case of the straight axle. When viewed from the front or rear, the wheel rate can be measured by the means above. Yet because the wheels are not independent, when viewed from the side under acceleration or braking the pivot point is at infinity (because both wheels have moved) and the spring is directly inline with the wheel contact patch. The result is often that the effective wheel rate under cornering is different than it is under acceleration and braking. This variation in wheel rate may be minimized by locating the spring as close to the wheel as possible.
A vehicle with a roll couple percentage of 70% will transfer 70% of its sprung weight transfer at the front of the vehicle during cornering.
The roll axis is the line through the front and rear roll centers that the vehicle rolls around during cornering. The distance from this axis to the sprung center of gravity height is the roll moment arm length. The total sprung weight transfer is equal to the G-force times the sprung weight times the roll moment arm length divided by the effective track width. The front sprung weight transfer is calculated by multiplying the roll couple percentage times the total sprung weight transfer. The rear is just the total minus the front transfer.
Damping controls the travel speed and resistance of the vehicles suspension. An undamped car will oscillate up and down. With proper damping levels, the car will settle back to a normal state in a minimal amount of time. Most damping in modern vehicles can be controlled by increasing or decreasing the resistance to fluid flow in the shock absorber.
Camber changes with wheel travel and with body roll. A tire wears and brakes best at -1 to -2 degrees of camber from vertical. Depending on the tire, it may hold the road best at a slightly different angle. Small changes in camber, front and rear, are used to tune handling.
The instant center can also be thought of as having the effect of converting multilink suspension into a single control arm which pivots at the Instant Center. This is only true at a given suspension deflection, because an unequal length, multi-link system has an instant center that moves as the suspension is deflected.
Anti-dive and anti-squat percentage are always calculated with respect to a vertical plane that intersects the vehicle's center of gravity. Consider anti-dive first. Locate the front instant centers of the suspension from the vehicle's side view. Draw a line fron the tire contact patch through the instant center, this is the tire force vector. Now draw a line straight down from the vehicle's center of gravity. The anti-dive is the ratio between the height of where the tire force vector crosses the center of gravity plane expressed as a percentage. An anti-dive ratio of 50% would mean the force vector under braking crosses half way between the ground and the center of gravity.
Anti-squat is the counterpart to anti-dive and is for the rear suspension under acceleration.
Anti-dive and anti-squat may or may not be desirable depending on the suspension design. Independent suspension using multiple control arms can be an issue if the percentage is too high (say over 30%). A percentage of 100% in this case would indicate the suspension is taking 100% of the weight transfer under braking instead of the springs. This effectively binds the suspension and turns the independent suspension into no suspension like a go-cart. However, in the case of leaf spring rear suspension the anti-squat can often exceed 100% (meaning the rear may actually raise under acceleration) yet because there isn't a second arm to bind against and the suspension can freely move. Traction bars are often added to drag racing cars with leaf spring rear to increase the anti-squat to its maximum. This has the effect of forcing the rear of the car in the air and the tires onto the ground for better traction.
Semi-active suspensions include devices such as air springs and switchable shock absorbers, various self-levelling solutions, as well as systems like Hydropneumatic, Hydrolastic, and Hydragas suspensions. Mitsubishi developed the world’s first production semi-active electronically controlled suspension system in passenger cars; the system was first incorporated in the 1987 Galant model. Delphi currently sells shock absorbers filled with a magneto-rheological fluid, whose viscosity can be changed electromagnetically, thereby giving variable control without switching valves, which is faster and thus more effective.
For example, a hydropneumatic Citroën will "know" how far off the ground the car is supposed to be and constantly reset to achieve that level, regardless of load. It will not instantly compensate for body roll due to cornering however. Citroën's system adds about 1% to the cost of the car versus passive steel springs.
Fully active suspension systems use electronic monitoring of vehicle conditions, coupled with the means to impact vehicle suspension and behavior in real time to directly control the motion of the car. Lotus Cars developed several prototypes, from 1982 onwards, and introduced them to F1, where they have been fairly effective, but have now been banned. Nissan introduced a low bandwidth active suspension in circa 1990 as an option that added an extra 20% to the price of luxury models. Citroën has also developed several active suspension models (see hydractive). A recently publicised fully active system from Bose Corporation uses linear electric motors, ie solenoids, in place of hydraulic or pneumatic actuators that have generally been used up until recently. The most advanced suspension system is Active Body Control, introduced in 1999 on the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz CL-Class.
With the help of control system, various semi-active/active suspensions could realize an improved design compromise among different vibrations modes of the vehicle, namely bounce, roll, pitch and warp modes. However, the applications of these advanced suspensions are constrained by the cost, packaging, weight, reliability, and/or the other challenges.
Interconnected suspension, unlike semi-active/active suspensions, could easily decouple different vehicle vibration modes in a passive manner. The interconnections can be realized by various means, such as mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic. Anti-roll bars are one of the typical examples of mechanical interconnections, while it has been stated that fluidic interconnections offer greater potential and flexibility in improving both the stiffness and damping properties. Considering the considerable commercial potentials of hydro-pneumatic technology (Corolla, 1996), interconnected hydropneumatic suspensions have also been explored in some recent studies, and their potential benefits in enhancing vehicle ride and handling have been demonstrated. The control system can also be used for further improving performance of interconnected suspensions. Apart from academic research, an Australian company, Kinetic, is having some success (WRC: 3 Championships, Dakar Rally: 2 Championships, Lexus GX470 2004 4x4 of the year with KDSS, 2005 PACE award) with various passive or semi-active systems, which generally decouple at least two vehicle modes (roll, warp (articulation), pitch and/or heave (bounce)) to simultaneous control each mode’s stiffness and damping, by using interconnected shock absorbers, and other methods. In 1999 Kinetic was bought out by Tenneco.
Historically, the first mass production car with front to rear mechanical interconnected suspension was the 1948 Citroën 2CV. The suspension of the 2CV was extremely soft — it had low roll stiffness, but its pitch stiffness was increased by using an interconnected suspension. The leading arm / trailing arm swinging arm, fore-aft linked suspension system together with inboard front brakes had a much smaller unsprung weight than existing coil spring or leaf designs. The interconnection transmitted some of the force deflecting a front wheel up over a bump, to push the rear wheel down on the same side. When the rear wheel met that bump a moment later, it did the same in reverse, keeping the car level front to rear. The 2CV had a design brief to be able to be driven at speed over a ploughed field. It originally featured friction dampers and tuned mass dampers. Later models had tuned mass dampers at the front with telescopic dampers / shock absorbers front and rear.
Some of the last post war Packard models also featured interconnected suspension. The original Mini and some more recent British Leyland models also featured interlinking, when fitted with Moulton's Hydrolastic or Hydragas suspensions.
A dependent suspension normally has a beam (a simple 'cart' axle) or (driven) live axle that holds wheels parallel to each other and perpendicular to the axle. When the camber of one wheel changes, the camber of the opposite wheel changes in the same way (by convention on one side this is a positive change in camber and on the other side this a negative change). Di-Dion suspensions are also in this category as they rigidly connect the wheels together.
An independent suspension allows wheels to rise and fall on their own without affecting the opposite wheel. Suspensions with other devices, such as anti-roll bars that link the wheels in some way are still classed as independent.
A third type is a semi-dependent suspension. In this case, the motion of one wheel does affect the position of the other but they are not rigidly attached to each other. A twist-beam rear suspension is such a system.
Examples of location linkages include:
In a front engine, rear-drive vehicle, dependent rear suspension is either "live axle" or deDion axle, depending on whether or not the differential is carried on the axle. Live axle is simpler but the unsprung weight contributes to wheel bounce.
Because it assures constant camber, dependent (and semi-independent) suspension is most common on vehicles that need to carry large loads as a proportion of the vehicle weight, that have relatively soft springs and that do not (for cost and simplicity reasons) use active suspensions. The use of dependent front suspension has become limited to heavier commercial vehicles.
Because the wheels are not constrained to remain perpendicular to a flat road surface in turning, braking and varying load conditions, control of the wheel camber is an important issue. Swinging arm was common in small cars that were sprung softly and could carry large loads, because the camber is independent of load. Some active and semi-active suspensions maintain the ride height, and therefore the camber, independent of load. In sports cars, optimal camber change when turning is more important.
Wishbone and multi-link allow the engineer more control over the geometry, to arrive at the best compromise, than swing axle, MacPherson strut or swinging arm do; however the cost and space requirements may be greater. Semi-trailing arm is in between, being a variable compromise between the geometries of swinging arm and swing axle.
Military AFVs, including tanks, have specialized suspension requirements. They can weigh more than seventy tons and are required to move at high speed over very rough ground. Their suspension components must be protected from land mines and antitank weapons. Tracked AFVs can have as many as nine road wheels on each side. Many wheeled AFVs have six or eight wheels, to help them ride over rough and soft ground.
The earliest tanks of the Great War had fixed suspensions—with no movement whatsoever. This unsatisfactory situation was improved with leaf spring suspensions adopted from agricultural machinery, but even these had very limited travel.
Speeds increased due to more powerful engines, and the quality of ride had to be improved. In the 1930s, the Christie suspension was developed, which allowed the use of coil springs inside a vehicle's armoured hull, by redirecting the direction of travel using a bell crank. Horstmann suspension was a variation which used a combination of bell crank and exterior coil springs, in use from the 1930s to the 1990s.
By the Second World War the other common type was torsion-bar suspension, getting spring force from twisting bars inside the hull—this had less travel than the Christie type, but was significantly more compact, allowing the installation of larger turret rings and heavier main armament. The torsion-bar suspension, sometimes including shock absorbers, has been the dominant heavy armored vehicle suspension since the Second World War.