Here’s why your wheelie suitcase wobbles

Roller luggage simulation provides physics insights possibly relevant to other vehicles

rolling luggage

ROCKIN’ ROLLER Physicists give the play-by-play of what makes rolling luggage rock back and forth.

Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock

Anyone who’s dragged roller luggage knows it’s liable to fishtail. To most people, this is a nuisance. To a few scientists, it’s a physics problem. Researchers detail the precise interplay of forces that set suitcases shimmying in a study published online June 21 in Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

The researchers simulated and observed the motion of a toy model suitcase on a treadmill. They found that the suitcase’s side-to-side motion at any given moment is related to its tilt and distance off-center from the line of travel.

For instance, imagine a suitcase rolling straight ahead, but then hitting a bump or cutting a corner that causes the right wheel to lift. The suitcase’s tilt makes the left wheel steer the suitcase rightward. When the right wheel falls back to the ground and the left wheel lifts off, the suitcase — now positioned and tilted to the right — banks left. Switch wheels, swing, repeat.

“It’s a pretty good analysis of the system,” says Andy Ruina, a physicist at Cornell University who was not involved in the research.

This swaying motion is “a bit funny and counterintuitive,” says study coauthor Sylvain Courrech du Pont. It actually gets smaller when the suitcase rolls faster. Lowering the angle of the suitcase can get the rocking to stop altogether, he says.

Understanding the physics of this system could be useful for more than designing stable suitcases, because it also applies to other two-wheel carriers — like car-pulled trailers. “In the near future, maybe we will have a car without a driver,” says Courrech du Pont, a physicist at Paris Diderot University. “It would be a good thing if the car knows how to stop this kind of motion.”

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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