The following description of a differential applies to a "traditional" rear-wheel-drive car or truck:
Power is supplied from the engine, via the transmission
, to a drive shaft
which runs to the differential. A spiral bevel pinion
gear at the end of the propeller shaft is encased within the differential itself, and it meshes with the large spiral bevel ring
gear.The ring gear is attached to a carrier
, which holds what is sometimes called a spider, a cluster of four bevel gears in a rectangle, so each bevel gear meshes with two neighbors and rotates counter to the third, that it faces and does not mesh with. Two of these spider gears are aligned on the same axis as the ring gear and drive the half shafts
connected to the vehicle's driven wheels
. These are called the side gears. The other two spider gears are aligned on a perpendicular axis which changes orientation with the ring gear's rotation. These two gears are just called pinion gears, not to be confused with the main pinion gear. As the carrier rotates, the changing axis orientation of the pinion gears imparts the motion of the ring gear to the motion of the side gears by pushing on them rather than turning against them (that is, the same teeth stay in contact), but because the spider gears are not restricted from turning against each other, within
that motion the side gears can counter-rotate relative to the ring gear and to each other under the same force (in which case the same teeth do not stay in contact).
Thus, for example, if the car is making a turn to the right, the main ring gear may make 10 full rotations. During that time, the left wheel will make more rotations because it has further to travel, and the right wheel will make fewer rotations as it has less distance to travel. The side gears will rotate in opposite directions relative to the ring gear by, say, 2 full turns each (4 full turns relative to each other), resulting in the left wheel making 12 rotations, and the right wheel making 8 rotations.
The rotation of the ring gear is always the average of the rotations of the side gears. This is why if the wheels are lifted off the ground with the engine off, and the drive shaft is held (preventing the ring gear from turning inside the differential), manually rotating one wheel causes the other to rotate in the opposite direction by the same amount.
When the vehicle is traveling in a straight line, there will be no differential movement of the planetary system of gears other than the minute movements necessary to compensate for slight differences in wheel diameter, undulations in the road (which make for a longer or shorter wheel path), etc.
I stole this from wikepedia, so don't think I am some kind of physics genius. Hope this helps. It helped ME understand it, and I thought I understood it before I even looked at this post:happyhapp