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Ackerman, Toe and a Few Other Random Thoughts

The diagram below outlines the important geometry in determining the motions of
the steer wheels in a vehicle that uses Ackerman steering geometry. Ackerman is an
interesting problem because it is dynamic. That is to say that we have two components
moving together the left and right steering knuckles, but the relationship between their
motions changes as we move them. This is a real head scratcher. Its a bit like having a
bowling ball in a dark room and throwing other bowling balls in an attempt to locate it by
listening for an impact. Every time you find the ball by crashing into it, it moves and
again dont know where it is.

King Pin Center to Center Distance

Tie Rod Length

Ackerman Angle

Wheel Base

Luckily we have some mathematical voodoo that can help us figure it out. Lets
look at the important distances and angles. The two most fundamental distances are the
wheel base of the car and the kingpin center to center distance. If we draw two lines
representing the wheelbase and the distance from the cars center line to one of the king
pins, we can make a triangle. By design, the line that goes through the centers of the
Ackerman arm forms the hypotenuse of this triangle. See below.
Note that the

King Pin Center to Center Distance

angle with its
vertex at A is
90 degrees by
design, unless
the vehicle has

been crashed.
If this angle
experiences an
unplanned C
adjustment due Ackerman
to an impact, Angle
the car will dog
track. This can
be checked
using a tape
measure and B
distances from
side to side. Also note that the line that forms the Ackerman angle with the hypotenuse is
parallel with the thrust line, again by definition. Because of this, we can say that angle B
and the Ackerman angle are similar, so if we know one, we know the other. But angle B
isnt too hard to come up with. Recall that the tangent function gives the ratio between
the opposite side and the adjacent side of the triangle. So

TAN Angle B = king pin center to center distance / 2


The problem is that we know the distances and are trying to find angle B. We need the
inverse function ARCTAN. Rearranging, we get:

ARCTAN king pin center to center distance / 2 = Angle B


We can pick distances, turn the crank and find Angle B and by extension, the Ackerman
Angle. For example, lets choose a wheel base of 72 and a king pin to king pin distance
of 36. The formula would look as follows:

ARCTAN 36 / 2 = Angle B

Plugging the number into a calculator or Excel, or looking up in a table,

ARCTAN (.25) = 14.036

So, the Ackerman Angle is 14.036 degrees. We can use this to find the length of the tie
King Pin Center to Center Distance

Tie Rod Length

To find the length of the tie rod, we can decompose the trapezoid ABCD into a rectangle
and two triangles.
Wheel Base



If you think logically about the diagram above, the length of the tie rod (segment BC in
the drawing) is equal to the king pin to king pin center distance minus distance Y on each
side. So, what is distance Y? To find out, you have to pick an Ackerman Arm Radius.
You may choose this by purchasing a standard Ackerman arm out of a catalog, or you
may design your own. Either way, it is what we might refer to as a drawing board
problem, meaning that basically this is a parameter that the engineer chooses by his gut.
Lets pick 6 to make life easy. So, how long is distance Y? Well, recall that the SIN of
an angle is the ratio between the side opposite the angle and the hypotenuse. In
shorthand it looks as follows.

SIN 14.036 = Y/6

As you know, the name of the game in Algebra is getting the variable by itself, so

6 * SIN 14.036 = Y

You can look SIN 14.036 up in a table, or punch it up on a calculator, giving you:

6 * .243 = Y

A few Dazzling Algebraic Contortions, And:

1.445 = Y

So, the tie rod is 1.445 inches shorter on the bottom and 1.445 inches shorter on the top
than the kingpin center to center distance. Expressed mathematically:

LT = DKC 2*RAA*SIN Ackerman Angle


LT is the length of the tie rod

DKC is the distance between king pins center to center
RAA is the radius of the Ackerman Arm

Plugging in our numbers

LT = 36 2*6*SIN 14.036
Looking up the SIN value

LT = 36 2*6*.243

Turning the crank

LT = 33.084 D

So, for a car configured as this one is, the tie rod needs to be 33.084 from Something
the center of one rod end to the center of the other. less than 20
Weve figured out all of the static values. Now the real fun begins.
Lets contemplate a turn as diagrammed in red to the right. Suppose that
the Ackerman arm labeled AB steers 20 degrees to the left as shown. What
angle does the other Ackerman arm transect? You might think 20 degrees,
but this would result in the steering wheels being parallel in a turn, which


would be unsatisfactory as we discussed in the previous packet. In reality, because the
car pictured is turning to the left, the right Ackerman arm (CD) needs to steer something
less than 20 degrees. But how much less?
This becomes a moving target. I tried a lot of high flutin mathematical tricks
until I discovered a rather straightforward way to attack this. Let us consider a line
drawn diagonally from point D to B. This creates three
angles that add together to give the angle of the wheel that
pivots at point D. Well call the first angle K, the second
D angle (pronounced gamma), and the third angle is of course,
the Ackerman angle.
Now we can set to work on determining each. If you

think about angle k, we can determine it because for any steer
k angle, we know the positions of the ends of the diagonal line.
If we assigned point A the coordinate of 0,0 then point D
would have the coordinates Kingpin Center to Center
Distance,0. In the our case specifically point Ds coordinates
would be 36,0. Point Bs coordinates take a little bit more
elbow grease to find. We can calculate its locations with the
following formulae:
Point Bs X coordinate = RAA * COS(AA + SAL)

Point Bs Y coordinate = RAA * SIN(AA + SAL)

RAA is the Ackerman Arm Radius
AA is the Ackerman Angle
SAL is the steering angle of the left wheel. Zero degrees is straight ahead.
Positive values are a left turn, negative values are a right turn.
Plugging in our numbers for a 20 left turn

Point Bs X coordinate = 6 * COS(14.036 + 20)

Point Bs Y coordinate = 6 * SIN(14.036 + 20)

Jumping through a few hoops

D Point Bs X coordinate = 4.972

Point Bs Y coordinate = 3.358

k So, the coordinates of Point B at a 20 left turn are
4.972,3.358. We can project straight to the left of point B
and straight up from point A to create a new point called
point E. Because we projected straight left and straight up,


the angle at E is by definition 90. Also, because point E falls on segment AD, we can
calculate distance DE with the formula:


Plugging in our numbers

DE = 36 3.358

Crunching the numbers

DE = 32.642

Now that we know EB and ED, we can find the length of BD because it is a hypotenuse
of the triangle formed. Using Pythagorean Theorem:

BD = (EB2 + (DE)2

Plugging our numbers in

BD = (32.642)2 + (4.972)2

BD = 33.019

Furthermore, because we know the sides of the triangle we can determine angle k in the
following manner:


Of course, were trying to find k, so lets get that by itself by taking the ARCTAN


Plugging in our numbers

ARCTAN (4.972/32.642) = k C
Some mathematical acrobatics and

8.661 = k
So now that we know angle k and the Ackerman angle, the problem is two
thirds licked. All we have left is to find angle (pronounced gamma). Note
that is included in triangle BDC. Lets think about what we know about


this triangle. We know that side DC is the length of the Ackerman arm, which we chose
to be 6. We know that side CB is the length of the tie rod, which we calculated earlier to
be 33.084. Finally, we know the distance BD, which we determined using Pathagorean
Theorem to be 33.019. So we have a triangle and we know the lengths of each of the
three sides.
Luckily, there is a somewhat abstract relationship between the sides of non-right
triangles called law of cosines. It can be expressed a number of ways, but we will use
the permutation shown below.

COS = A2 + B2 C2

Per usual, we are trying to get the thing we dont know by itself, so well need to beat this
up a little bit to make it useful. Rearranging gives:

ARCCOS A2 + B2 C2 =

Plugging in our numbers

ARCCOS (33.019)2 + (6)2 (33.084)2 =


Crunching the numbers

85.411 =

Now if we add up angle k, and the Ackerman angle, well have the tires steer angle
from the line that connects the two kingpins. To get the steer angle, we have to subtract
90. The formula is:

Steer Angle = k + + Ackerman Angle - 90

Plugging our numbers in

Steer Angle = 8.661 + 85.411 + 14.036 - 90

Turning the crank:

Steer Angle = 18.108

As with any engineering math, we must ask if this is a reasonable number. Lets think
about it. The car is executing a left turn. The left front wheel is steered 20 to the left.
The right wheel is tracing a larger arc, and therefore should have a lesser steer angle. In
short the left side steering angle is 20 and the right side should be something less than
20. Weve passed that test. Additionally, experience on real cars on the alignment rack
indicates that these numbers are reasonable. Attached you will find an Excel file that will
do the heavy lifting for you.