Recirculating-ball steering is used on many trucks and SUVs today. The linkage that turns the wheels is slightly different than on a rack-and-pinion system.

The recirculating-ball steering gear contains a worm gear. You can image the gear in two parts. The first part is a block of metal with a threaded hole in it. This block has gear teeth cut into the outside of it, which engage a gear that moves the pitman arm (see diagram above). The steering wheel connects to a threaded rod, similar to a bolt, that sticks into the hole in the block. When the steering wheel turns, it turns the bolt. Instead of twisting further into the block the way a regular bolt would, this bolt is held fixed so that when it spins, it moves the block, which moves the gear that turns the wheels.

Instead of the bolt directly engaging the threads in the block, all of the threads are filled with ball bearings that recirculate through the gear as it turns. The balls actually serve two purposes: First, they reduce friction and wear in the gear; second, they reduce slop in the gear. Slop would be felt when you change the direction of the steering wheel without the balls in the steering gear, the teeth would come out of contact with each other for a moment, making the steering wheel feel loose.

Power steering in a recirculating-ball system works similarly to a rack-and-pinion system. Assist is provided by supplying higher-pressure fluid to one side of the block.

Now let's take a look at the other components that make up a power-steering system.

Power Steering

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 the steering 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.