Researchers have developed a self-contained wheel unit that combines a wheel and an electric motor with braking, suspension, steering, and a control system in a single module designed to be bolted to any vehicle frame. The unit could free manufacturers from making huge investments to develop those components from scratch and enables the economical production of specialized vehicles, even in small quantities.
The concept of a wheel unit was first applied to electric, two-seater urban cars that promise to ease congestion and reduce pollution; however, they came with high prices, space limitations, and safety concerns. Mass-produced wheel units would significantly reduce production costs while also creating space for passengers that would otherwise be devoted to mechanical components such as steering columns.
To improve the stability of the tall, narrow cars, researchers also designed and prototyped the units — which weigh about 40 kilograms and have about 25 horsepower — to enable active wheel cambering, or tilting.
The next step involves scaling up the wheel unit, called a corner module, for large utility and commercial vehicles. That would pave the way for more cost-effective production of low-volume, specialized vehicles with customized bodies in fields including mining and rescue operations.