Power steering is considered one of the greatest innovations in automotive history, and today it is ubiquitous in every type of vehicle. Given how common power steering is today, it is a bit surprising that most people don’t really know what it does or what driving would be like without it. Here’s a primer on power steering, how it works, and why it is an important component of almost every single in the past five or six decades.
What is Power Steering?
Simply put, power steering makes it easy for drivers to turn the steering wheel. When a vehicle is running and engaged, power steering kicks in to make it almost effortless for the driver to turn and operate the steering wheel. Without power steering, a steering wheel would feel stiff and it would be extremely difficult for people to safely navigate their car. Power steering makes the whole experience smooth and easy.
How Does Powering Steering Work?
While power steering might feel effortless to the driver, it is a complex system that enables people to turn the wheel with ease. In most vehicles today, hydraulics are used to alleviate the difficulty of turning — which actually would take some strength if the system didn’t exist. Hydraulic power steering systems augment steering effort via an actuator, which is a hydraulic cylinder that engages to turn the steering wheel in the right direction at the slightest touch. This makes it easy to steer a car no matter the age, health, or strength of the driver.
In addition to hydraulic systems, there are also electric power steering systems used that rely on electric motors to provide the assistance needed to turn a steering wheel. Like a hydraulic system, electricity powers an actuator or motor that runs the power steering system in a vehicle. Electrical power steering systems are typically found in large construction vehicles. Most smaller consumer vehicles run on hydraulic power steering.
Who Invented Power Steering?
The first record of a power steering system being used on an automobile dates back to 1876. But this appears to have been a one-off incident. Engineer Robert E. Twyford of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania filed the first patent for a power steering mechanism in 1900, in connection with a four-wheel drive system that he also patented.
In 1926, an engineer named Francis W. Davis invented the first modern-day power steering system. Working at General Motors, he refined a hydraulic-assisted power steering system for the automotive company. Unfortunately, the accountants at GM determined that adding power steering to their vehicles would be too expensive to mass produce, and the idea sat dormant for another two decades.
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the first commercially available passenger car power steering system was introduced by the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler called its new hydraulic-based power steering system “Hydraguide,” and it proved to be extremely popular with motorists who appreciated being able to steer their vehicles more easily.
While it was initially available only in luxury vehicles, it wasn’t long before all automotive manufacturers adopted power steering systems. By the late 1960s and early 70s, it had become a standard option on almost every car made. The move toward front wheel drive vehicles also necessitated power steering in order for people to keep control of their cars and drive them safely.