Car Physics for 3D Games

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We have recently added 3D vehicle physics to our DigitalRune Physics library. In this post we will explain how the car physics works, so that you can either create your own car physics, or you can understand and tune the car physics that comes with our libraries.

Our Goal

Let’s have a look at what we want to achieve. Following Vehicle Sample is an XNA example project that is included in the DigitalRune Physics Bundle:


For car physics you need a collision detection and physics library that supports rigid bodies and ray-casts.

Simulation Methods

Constraint Car

In the PhysicsSample that comes with the DigitalRune Physics Bundle, we have implemented a very basic constraint car, where a car is created using rigid bodies and constraints. The chassis is a box and the wheels are cylindrical bodies. The wheels are connected to the chassis using constraints (HingeJoints for the rear-wheels, Hinge2Joints for the steerable front-wheels). The wheel rotation is controlled using motor constraints.

This works in principle but has a few disadvantages: We would need more complex joints to simulate suspension. The sliding behavior of wheels is different from standard rigid bodies. Real wheels aren’t rigid bodies. We have a lot of constraints that have to be configured very carefully. Etc. - For action games a different simulation method is much simpler and more customizable:

Ray-cast Car

In a ray-cast car the chassis is a rigid body, but the wheels are only short rays that sample the ground. In the simulation, there are no cylindrical shapes or rigid bodies for the wheels. The wheels are only rendered as part of the visual model.

A ray-cast car is simpler, more efficient and gives us a lot of tuning options. This car type is used in all the big physics engines (Havok, PhysX, Bullet). And our implementation is probably very similar.

Implementing a Ray-cast Car

The Chassis

We use a single rigid body for the chassis of the car. In the first tests, we used a simple box or a composite shape consisting of two boxes (lower car part + upper car part) as the shape. Later we imported a real car model. Since triangle meshes are not optimal for collision detection, we use the convex hull of the mesh vertices as the shape.

The original car model had about 10,000 vertices – its convex hull about 500 vertices. That’s still quite a lot of vertices. Therefore we simplified the convex hull: Our convex hull generator allows to set an upper limit for the allowed number of vertices. In our example we set an upper limit of max. 64 vertices. The simplified convex hull has less vertices than the original convex hull. However, it is also slightly bigger. That’s the disadvantage of a simplified convex hull.

The convex hull worked quite well in most cases. Except in uneven terrain the car chassis could hit a hump in the ground and stop the car. The mesh of our sports car was too close to the ground for some uneven off-road parts in our level. To give the car a bit more freedom, we shrank the convex hull shape by a small factor (using a negative skin with of –4 cm). (See also “Convex Hull Creation and Simplification” to read about convex hull creation and simplification).

In our sample the chassis shape is created like this:

// 1. Extract the vertices from the car model.
TriangleMesh mesh = TriangleMesh

// 2. (Optional) Create simplified convex hull from mesh.
DcelMesh convexHull = GeometryHelper
mesh.Vertices, 64, -0.04f);

// 3. Create convex polyhedron using the vertices of the
convex hull.
ConvexPolyhedron chassisShape = new ConvexPolyhedron(
convexHull.Vertices.Select(v => v.Position));

The Mass Frame

The mass frame defines the center of mass of a rigid body. Normally, a physics engine computes the center of mass automatically from the given shape. For the chassis, the automatically computed center of mass (COM) is not optimal because it assumes a uniform density in the whole chassis. Therefore, we adjust the position of the COM manually. And we apply another trick: We artificially place the COM lower to the ground. It can even be outside of the shape under the ground! Lowering the COM makes the car more stable. Cars with a high COM are unstable in tight curves and tend to overturn.

Here is how we create the mass frame and the final rigid body for the chassis:

// The mass properties of the car. We use a mass of 800 kg.
MassFrame mass = MassFrame.FromShapeAndMass(
chassisShape, Vector3F.One, 800, 0.1f, 1);
pose = mass.Pose;
pose.Position.Y -= 0.5f;
// Lower the center of mass.
pose.Position.Z = -0.5f; // Center should be below the driver.
mass.Pose = pose;

RigidBody chassis = new RigidBody(chassisShape, mass, material);

In some physics engines it is not possible to directly change the COM position and instead you have to apply an offset to the shape.

(For the material: We use a standard material with standard restitution and friction values. The material is only important when the car chassis slides along walls or the ground in crashes. )


We create a ray for each wheel. The ray of a wheel starts where the suspension is fixed to the chassis. It shoots down and its length is the suspension length plus the wheel radius. These rays are used to detect the ground distance and the normal vector of the ground in each frame. And in each frame we have to apply 3 forces per wheel:

  • suspensions force,
  • side force
  • and forward force.


The suspension is modeled as simple damped spring that has a spring constant (suspension stiffness) and a damping constant (suspension damping). Actually, we use two different damping coefficients: one when the suspension is compressing (higher) and another one when the suspension is extending (lower than the compression damping). The current suspension length is hit distance of the ray - wheel radius. We assume that the suspension spring is at rest when it is fully extended. The suspension force in pseudo code is

suspensionForce = stiffness * (restLength – currentLength) + damping * (previousLength – currentLength) / deltaTime

This force is applied to the chassis at the position where the wheel touches the ground. And an equal but opposite force is applied to the ground.

Side Force

The goal of the side force is to stop any sideways motion of the wheel. We compute a vector in the ground plane that is orthogonal to the current rolling direction. Then we compute the force that is necessary to stop the sideways motion of the chassis at the wheel ground position.

Hmmm… This way too difficult to explain in this blog post – we probably need to dedicate a whole article to this topic in the future. (Owners of DigitalRune Physics can take a look at the vehicle source code. What we do is this: We define a 1D constraint that sets the relative point velocity of the chassis and the ground at the wheel ground position to 0. Then we compute the constraint force for this constraint. The resulting force would stop any sideway sliding of the wheel. If you are familiar with the internals of rigid body dynamics and constraint solving, then you probably understand what we do. Otherwise, please have a look at the section about constraints in this thesis: A unified framework for rigid body dynamics and the referenced literature.)

Ok, lets assume that we have the side force that stops a wheel from sliding sideways. Important: We do not apply this force yet!

Forward Force

The forward force is applied to the chassis at the wheel ground position. It acts in the forward direction of the wheel and lies in the ground plane. This force accelerates the car (user steps onto the gas pedal) or decelerates the car (braking).

The forward force is further divided into the motor force and the brake force. The motor force increases when the user presses the forward button (e.g. the up arrow key on the keyboard). It decreases and can get negative when the user presses the backwards button (e.g. the down arrow key on the keyboard). The motor force returns to 0 when the user does not press the forward or backward buttons.

The brake force is set to a constant value when the user presses the handbrake button.

If the motor force is larger than the brake force, then we use the difference as the magnitude of our forward force. If the brake force is larger, then we cannot simply use the brake force value as the magnitude of the forward force. The brake force could be too large and accelerate the car into the opposite direction - especially when the car is at rest. To compute the exact brake force, we compute the force that would stop any car motion in the forward direction similar as we did for the side force above (again using magic constraint formulas…). Then we limit this force by the current brake force.

After that we know the magnitude of the forward force – but we do not apply this force yet!


The computed forward and side forces are ideal, in the sense that the wheel is not sliding. But sliding a.k.a. drifting is one of the fun parts of racing games and we want to model this too.

When an object is pushed tangential to the ground, a friction force acts against the movement. This friction force is limited by

maxFrictionForce = frictionCoefficient * normalForce

For each wheel, we assume a constant friction coefficient. And we already know the normal force: It is simply the suspension force computed earlier. This maxFrictionForce limits the possible forward and side forces. We sum up the forward force (in forward direction) and the side force (in side direction) and get the sum force that lies in the ground plane. When the magnitude of this force is larger than the maxFrictionForce, the wheel is sliding and we clamp the magnitude to the maxFrictionForce. The clamped force is applied to the chassis at the wheel ground position.

We further compute the so-called skid energy, which is the energy of friction when the car is sliding. This information can be used to control skid sounds or rendering of tire marks.

One important aspect of this sliding model is that forward force and side force are summed up before they are clamped. That means, the side force is indirectly limited by the current forward force. For example, if the car is at rest, it is hard to push the car sideways. But if the car is accelerating or decelerating, the maximal side force is reduced. In other words: Drive at a high speed in a curve and hit the handbrake, the braking wheels will start to slide. - Handbrake turns!!!

Wheel Rotation

Our wheels are only rays, still we have to compute a wheel rotation for visual wheel models. We simply compute the linear point velocity of the chassis at the wheel ground position in the forward direction (in the ground plane). The angular velocity of the wheel is then

wheel.AngularVelocity = forwardVelocity / wheel.Radius;

and the rotation angle is

wheel.RotationAngle += wheel.AngularVelocity * deltaTime;

You might want to change this. For example: Immediately stop the wheel rotation when the handbrake is active – for a dramatic effect!


To steer the car, we set the steering angle of the wheels. The steering angle defines the forward direction in which the forward force is applied. (The side force is always normal to the forward force.) The steering angle changes when the user presses the steering buttons (e.g. the left/right arrow keys on the keyboard). The steering angle does not change instantly. Instead, it changes over time until it reaches the maximal allowed steering angle. When the user is not pressing a steering button, the steering angle goes back to 0.

For very high speeds it is advisable to reduce the maximal allowed steering angles – small angles will suffice and keep the car controllable.


Good car physics needs a lot of tuning and also depends on the type of game. Following parameters should be considered for tuning:

  • Suspension stiffness and damping: Use a high stiffness for sports cars and a lower stiffness for off-road cars and normal cars.
  • Center of mass position: Shifting the COM can significantly change the driving behavior.
  • Wheel friction: Use different friction for front and rear wheels to create oversteering or understeering behavior.
  • Motor forces and braking forces: Tune the maximal forces and decide where to apply the forces (front-wheel drive vs. rear-wheel drive vs. all-wheel drive).
  • Roll reduction: This a parameter that we haven’t discussed so far. When it is 0, the wheel side forces are applied at the wheel ground position. When it is > 0, the side force are applied on a higher position. This makes the car more stable in curves. It reduces the sideways tilt in curves or the chance that the car will overturn. Changing this parameter can also have significant effects.
  • Gravity: Maybe use a higher gravity for the car.
  • Extra yaw torques (or angular impulses) can be applied to improve turning and create artificial sliding behavior.
  • Use extra damping forces if the car is too unstable.
  • Change the wheel friction depending on the current wheel velocity to create the perfect drifting behavior.

Possible Extensions

The described car physics can be improved in several aspects:

  • Consider gears and transmission when computing the wheel motor forces.
  • Use more ray casts per wheel instead of only a single ray. Or, use a linear shape cast with the cylinder shape - if your collision detection supports this. (A linear cast or shape cast is similar to a ray cast, but where a ray cast shoots a single point, a shape cast shoots a larger shape and computes the first time of impact. In DigitalRune.Geometry this can be done using GetTimeOfImpact queries.)
  • Use hard constraints when the suspension is at its minimum length. Currently, when the car falls with a high velocity, the wheels can sink into the ground. The suspension force is not high enough to prevent this. For this case we could add a constraint (e.g. a LinearLimit constraint in DigitalRune Physics) that is active when the suspension is max compressed.

Car Camera

In a third-person view (third-car view?) the camera can be fixed behind the car. This is used in our sample but does not look very dynamic. A spring-based chase camera, like in the AppHub Chase Camera sample, could look better. Or, compute the camera direction as a linear interpolation of the current car orientation and the current driving direction.


A ray-cast car is simple, efficient and opens up a lot of tuning options. Creating basic car physics is not so difficult. Creating a perfectly tuned car with perfect drifting behavior is the real challenge – and it depends highly on the game type.

This post contains a lot of knowledge that we have collected over time, and we hope that you can use these tips to tune your own car physics.

Very good article, clear explained. Real helps.

Great article. I'm using different physical engine but ideas which you have presented here are very helpful to understand how to simulate a car whatever engine you use. The most helpful part is about side forces. I've created simple car (rigidbody + 4 balls) but the car was sliding too much. Side forces is that what i need. Thanks!


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