Although Teslas and whatnot may get a lot of attention, many electric cars are actually small vehicles designed solely for urban use, made by struggling startup companies. A new wheel module could help increase the economic viability of building such vehicles, by simplifying the design and production processes.

Created by a team at Canada's University of Waterloo, each self-contained unit consists of a wheel with an integrated electric motor, along with braking, suspension, steering and control systems (power is supplied by the vehicle's existing battery pack).

Instead of having to design and fabricate all these separate components from scratch, automakers could simply bolt the pre-made wheel units to the corners of their cars' frames. Steering, acceleration and braking commands would then be relayed from the cabin electronically, not mechanically.

As a side benefit of this arrangement, which does away with parts such as a steering column, there would be more room inside the car for passengers or cargo.

In the technology's current state, each module weighs about 40 kg (88 lb). And because small electric cars do tend to be tall for their width, the units incorporate an active wheel cambering system – this means that when the car is driving along a slope that would otherwise tip the vehicle to one side, the wheels automatically compensate by tilting to keep the car upright.

"The idea is modularity and plug-and-play control capability," says Prof. Amir Khajepour. "Our wheel unit, in a sense, is a full vehicle with only one wheel. All that's missing is a body."

Plans now call for the system to be scaled up, so it could also be used on larger utility and commercial electric vehicles. A paper on the technology was recently published in the Journal of Automobile Engineering.

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