There are a couple of key components in power steering in addition to the rack-and-pinion or recirculating-ball mechanism.

Pump
The hydraulic power for the steering is provided by a rotary-vane pump (see diagram below). This pump is driven by the car's engine via a belt and pulley. It contains a set of retractable vanes that spin inside an oval chamber.

As the vanes spin, they pull hydraulic fluid from the return line at low pressure and force it into the outlet at high pressure. The amount of flow provided by the pump depends on the car's engine speed. The pump must be designed to provide adequate flow when the engine is idling. As a result, the pump moves much more fluid than necessary when the engine is running at faster speeds.

The pump contains a pressure-relief valve to make sure that the pressure does not get too high, especially at high engine speeds when so much fluid is being pumped.

Rotary Valve
A power-steering system should assist the driver only when he is exerting force on thesteering wheel (such as when starting a turn). When the driver is not exerting force (such as when driving in a straight line), the system shouldn't provide any assist. The device that senses the force on the steering wheel is called the rotary valve.

The key to the rotary valve is atorsion bar. The torsion bar is a thin rod of metal that twists when torqueis applied to it. The top of the bar is connected to the steering wheel, and the bottom of the bar is connected to the pinion or worm gear (which turns the wheels), so the amount of torque in the torsion bar is equal to the amount of torque the driver is using to turn the wheels. The more torque the driver uses to turn the wheels, the more the bar twists.

The input from the steering shaft forms the inner part of a spool-valve assembly. It also connects to the top end of the torsion bar. The bottom of the torsion bar connects to the outer part of the spool valve. The torsion bar also turns the output of the steering gear, connecting to either the pinion gear or the worm gear depending on which type of steering the car has.

As the bar twists, it rotates the inside of the spool valve relative to the outside. Since the inner part of the spool valve is also connected to the steering shaft (and therefore to the steering wheel), the amount of rotation between the inner and outer parts of the spool valve depends on how much torque the driver applies to the steering wheel.

When the steering wheel is not being turned, both hydraulic lines provide the same amount of pressure to the steering gear. But if the spool valve is turned one way or the other, ports open up to provide high-pressure fluid to the appropriate line.

It turns out that this type of power-steering system is pretty inefficient. Let's take a look at some advances we'll see in coming years that will help improve efficiency.

The Future of Power Steering

Since the power-steering pump on most cars today runs constantly, pumping fluid all the time, it wastes horsepower. This wasted power translates into wasted fuel.

You can expect to see several innovations that will improve fuel economy. One of the coolest ideas on the drawing board is the "steer-by-wire" or "drive-by-wire" system. These systems would completely eliminate the mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the steering, replacing it with a purely electronic control system. Essentially, the steering wheel would work like the one you can buy for your home computer to play games. It would contain sensors that tell the car what the driver is doing with the wheel, and have some motors in it to provide the driver with feedback on what the car is doing. The output of these sensors would be used to control a motorized steering system. This would free up space in the engine compartment by eliminating the steering shaft. It would also reduce vibration inside the car.

General Motors has introduced a concept car, the Hy-wire, that features this type of driving system. One of the most exciting things about the drive-by-wire system in the GM Hy-wire is that you can fine-tune vehicle handling without changing anything in the car's mechanical components -- all it takes to adjust the steering is some new computer software. In future drive-by-wire vehicles, you will most likely be able to configure the controls exactly to your liking by pressing a few buttons, just like you might adjust the seat position in a car today. It would also be possible in this sort of system to store distinct control preferences for each driver in the family.

In the past fifty years, car steering systems haven't changed much. But in the next decade, we'll see advances in car steering that will result in more efficient cars and a more comfortable ride.