Researchers claim a breakthrough in corner modules

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Vehicle design, production and dynamics could take a new direction if the latest research by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada is adopted by the automotive industry. Researchers at the University have developed a sophisticated wheel unit that combines a wheel and an electric motor with braking, suspension, steering and a control system, all incorporated in a single ‘corner module’ that could be bolted to any vehicle frame.

The Waterloo team say the module could be manufactured at a comparatively low cost, relieving manufacturers from the large investments required to develop each of those components from scratch, and lowering production costs, even for vehicles produced in small quantities.

“The idea is modularity and plug-and-play control capability,” said Amir Khajepour, a mechanical and mechatronics engineering professor at the University of Waterloo and director of its Mechatronic Vehicle Systems Lab. “Our wheel unit, in a sense, is a full vehicle with only one wheel. All that’s missing is a body.”
Similar principles have been seen before, with automotive researchers having applied the concept to electric-powered two-seater urban cars, intended to ease congestion and reduce pollution. However, such vehicles would only account for a small fraction of overall vehicle sales because of high prices, space limitations and safety concerns of such cars.

Professor Amir Khajepour stands next to a vehicle containing the new wheel unit

The architecture devised by Waterloo, meanwhile, would enable mass-produced wheel units, which in turn would significantly reduce production costs while also creating cabin space for passengers that would otherwise be devoted to mechanical components such as steering columns.
To improve the stability of tall, narrow car designs, the university’s researchers have also designed and prototyped the units – which weigh about 40kg and have about 25hp – to enable active wheel cambering, or tilting.
“Companies will be able to produce a smaller car that is cheaper, too,” added Khajepour. “Right now, we are not there. You have to pay more to get a smaller car, to get less.”
The next step in the research involves scaling up the corner module for large utility and commercial vehicles, including low-volume, specialized models such as mining, forestry and rescue vehicles.
“It’s an economy of scale problem,” Khajepour said. “Corner modules would allow us, without enormous development costs, to make vehicles that are specific for each application, for each function, by concentrating only on the design of the body and the user interface.”
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Adam divides his time as an editor between the worlds of aviation and motoring. These worlds may seem a little diverse today, but autonomous technology and future urban mobility is bringing them ever-closer. Adam is also chairman of the Vehicle Dynamics International Awards.

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