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A drive shaft, driving shaft, propeller shaft, or Cardan shaft is a mechanical component for transmitting torque and rotation, usually used to connect other components of a drive train that cannot be connected directly because of distance or the need to allow for relative movement between them.

Drive shafts are carriers of torque: they are subject to torsion and shear stress, equivalent to the difference between the input torque and the load. They must therefore be strong enough to bear the stress, whilst avoiding too much additional weight as that would in turn increase their inertia.

Automotive drive shafts


An automobile may use a longitudinal shaft to deliver power from an engine/transmission to the other end of the vehicle before it goes to the wheels. A pair of short drive shafts is commonly used to send power from a central differential, transmission, or transaxle to the wheels.

Front-engine, rear-wheel drive

In front-engined, rear-drive vehicles, a longer drive shaft is also required to send power the length of the vehicle. Two forms dominate: The torque tube with a single universal joint and the more common Hotchkiss drive with two or more joints. This system became known as Système Panhard after the automobile company Panhard et Levassor patented it.

Most of these vehicles have a clutch and gearbox (or transmission) mounted directly on the engine with a drive shaft leading to a final drive in the rear axle. When the vehicle is stationary, the drive shaft does not rotate. A few, mostly sports, cars seeking improved weight balance between front and rear, and most commonly Alfa Romeos or Porsche 924s, have instead used a rear-mounted transaxle. This places the clutch and transmission at the rear of the car and the drive shaft between them and the engine. In this case the drive shaft rotates continuously as long as the engine does, even when the car is stationary and out of gear.

Early automobiles often used chain drive or belt drive mechanisms rather than a drive shaft. Some used electrical generators and motors to transmit power to the wheels.

Front-wheel drive

In British English, the term "drive shaft" is restricted to a transverse shaft that transmits power to the wheels, especially the front wheels. A drive shaft connecting the gearbox to a rear differential is called a propeller shaft, or prop-shaft. A prop-shaft assembly consists of a propeller shaft, a slip joint and one or more universal joints. Where the engine and axles are separated from each other, as on four-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive vehicles, it is the propeller shaft that serves to transmit the drive force generated by the engine to the axles.

A drive shaft connecting a rear differential to a rear wheel may be called a half shaft. The name derives from the fact that two such shafts are required to form one rear axle.

Several different types of drive shaft are used in the automotive industry:

  • 1-piece drive shaft
  • 2-piece drive shaft
  • Slip-in-tube drive shaft

The slip-in-tube drive shaft is a new type that also helps in crash energy management. It can be compressed in the event of a crash, so is also known as a collapsible drive shaft.

Four wheel and all-wheel drive

These evolved from the front-engine rear-wheel drive layout. A new form of transmission called the "transfer box" was placed between transmission and final drives in both axles. This split the drive to the two axles and may also have included reduction gears, a dog clutch or differential. At least two drive shafts were used, one from the transfer box to each axle. In some larger vehicles, the transfer box was centrally mounted and was itself driven by a short drive shaft. In vehicles the size of a Land Rover, the drive shaft to the front axle is noticeably shorter and more steeply articulated than the rear shaft, making it a more difficult engineering problem to build a reliable drive shaft, and which may involve a more sophisticated form of universal joint.

Modern light cars with all-wheel drive (notably Audi or the Fiat Panda) may use a system that more closely resembles a front-wheel drive layout. The transmission and final drive for the front axle are combined into one housing alongside the engine, and a single driveshaft runs the length of the car to the rear axle. This is a favoured design where the torque is biased to the front wheels to give car-like handling, or where the maker wishes to produce both four-wheel drive and front-wheel drive cars with many shared components.

Drive shaft for Research and Development (R&D)

The automotive industry also uses drive shafts at testing plants. At an engine test stand a drive shaft is used to transfer a certain speed / torque from the combustion engine to a dynamometer. A "shaft guard" is used at a shaft connection to protect against contact with the drive shaft and for detection of a shaft failure. At a transmission test stand a drive shaft connects the prime mover with the transmission.


  • Drive system is less likely to become jammed or broken, a common problem with chain-driven bicycles
  • The use of a gear system creates a smoother and more consistent pedaling motion
  • The rider cannot become dirtied from chain grease or injured by the chain from "Chain bite", which occurs when clothing or even a body part catches between the chain and a sprocket
  • Lower maintenance than a chain system when the drive shaft is enclosed in a tube, the common convention
  • More consistent performance. Dynamic Bicycles claims that a drive shaft bicycle consistently delivers 94% efficiency, whereas a chain-driven bike can deliver anywhere from 75-97% efficiency based on condition.
  • Greater clearance: with the absence of a derailleur or other low-hanging machinery, the bicycle has nearly twice the ground clearance
  • For bicycle rental companies, a drive-shaft bicycle is less prone to be stolen, since the shaft is non-standard, and both noticeable and non-maintainable. This type of bicycle is in use in several major cities of Europe, where there have been large municipal funded, public (and automatic) bicycle rental projects.


  • A drive shaft system weighs more than a chain system, usually 1-2 pounds heavier
  • At optimum upkeep, a chain delivers greater efficiency
  • Many of the advantages claimed by drive shaft's proponents can be achieved on a chain-driven bicycle, such as covering the chain and gears with a metal or plastic cover
  • Use of lightweight derailleur gears with a high number of ratios is impossible, although hub gears can be used
  • Wheel removal can be complicated in some designs (as it is for some chain-driven bicycles with hub gears).