How Eaton is rethinking its groundbreaking differential for the EV age

Creating an innovation on a blank sheet of paper is challenging enough.

But what if the task is to innovate an existing vehicle component over and over and over for 50 years?

That has been the challenge of engineers and product management at Eaton Corp.’s Vehicle Group when it comes to the MLocker, a mechanical locking differential for trucks that the power management supplier first produced in 1973 for General Motors.

A locking differential establishes a link between both wheels of an axle in case one of them is not getting traction. By locking them, both wheels can deliver torque to pull out of a muddy field or climb across rocky ground, for example.

It’s commonplace technology today. But it was a breakthrough for mass-market driving applications in the early 1970s — an era when brawny trucks were still not household fixtures. High-end sports car engineers had begun to seek better axle control to combat spinout while cornering at high speeds. Eaton instead focused on allowing trucks to handle snowy farm roads and off-road terrains where one wheel might be off the ground while the others turned.

But delivering the half-century-old achievement was not the end of the innovation story for Eaton. It was just the beginning.

“We have to continue to improve it, generation after generation,” Mark Kramer, Eaton’s business unit director for ePowertrain, told Automotive News. “Especially now. Nobody foresaw the truck market taking off like it did. Originally, the differential was something of a special feature. Today, it’s an important component, and it’s also a critical product for us.”

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