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I've noticed it is difficult to turn the wheels of a car when the car is stationary, especially cars without power steering, which is why the power steering was invented. However, I've noticed it becomes feather light when traveling at speed (some models even stiffen the steering wheel electronically at speed). So, why does a car's steering wheel get lighter with increasing speed?

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Imagine the car stationary. The tire sits on the ground with the contact patch touching.

As you start turning the wheel, the linkage to the wheels starts to rotate the contact patch on the ground. (There are also more complex motions because of the non-zero caster angle of the front wheel).

This rotation is opposed by the static friction of the tire. As you continue turning, portions of the tread on the contact patch are pulled over and stressed.

Now imagine holding the steering wheel at that angle and allowing the car to roll forward a bit. The tread at the rear of the contact patch lifts away from the road and the stress in that portion of the tire is released. Meanwhile new tread rolls onto the contact patch in front, but at the correct angle. Once the contact patch is covered by new tread, the stress from the turn is gone and steering wheel is back to a near-neutral force (again, modulo several effects from the suspension angles).

The faster the car is moving forward, the faster it can put tread into the contact patch with no side stress. So the steering becomes easier.

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  • $\begingroup$ And you can see the tire change shape when turning in this video of high speed cornering which can help you visualize what's happening where the rubber meets the road. $\endgroup$ – davidbak Mar 8 at 21:53
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The work to turn the wheel is roughly proportional to how much you turn the wheel, and inversely proportional to the distance the car traveled. You feel less resistance at higher speed because the car moved farther for the same amount of steering wheel turn. This is because when the wheels on the ground are rolling, the distortion of the rubber, and the friction, that occurs when you turn the steering wheel is less than it is when those wheels are stationary to the ground.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd word this as "inversely proportional to the distance the car traveled" $\endgroup$ – Nayuki Mar 8 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ oops, you're right, I fixed it $\endgroup$ – Digiproc Mar 8 at 22:57
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Even though a car is not a wing, most cars generate some lift as they travel through the air as well as a force moment which tends to torque the car down at the rear wheels and up at the front. In addition, the torque that the engine is applying to the driven wheels results in a countertorque on the body of the car that also tends to lift the front end of the car. All these effects tend to unload the front wheels, which lightens the steering forces.

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    $\begingroup$ This is probably less significant than the thing BowlOfRed suggested, but I don't doubt it has a measurable effect. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 8 at 19:06
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As others have posted, the forward rotation of the wheel reduces the 'scrubbing', however, there is an opposing force which should be mentioned, the gyroscopic effect which would cause the steering to become more difficult to turn the faster the wheels rotate.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you calculate the magnitude of the gyroscopic effect? My guess is that it hasn't been mentioned because we don't notice it at ordinary speeds, because it is negligible compared to static friction from 1000 kg on rubber-to-cement contact. $\endgroup$ – Sam Mar 8 at 20:10

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