What Are Roller Bearings & What Are They Used For?

by Max Johnston - Gearhead


  • Roller bearings have existed for centuries, but have only been widely used in automobiles since the early-to-mid 20th century.
  • There are four common types of roller bearings: spherical, cylindrical, tapered, and needle.
  • Spherical roller bearings are best for handling forces caused by angular misalignment, due to their rounded parts.
  • Cylindrical roller bearings provide linear contact between the bearings and raceways, making them excellent for radial forces at high speeds (like in driven wheels).
  • Tapered roller bearings are designed with angles that let them handle axial as well as radial forces, and are often arranged in pairs on non-driven wheels.
  • Needle roller bearings are long and thin, allowing them to reduce friction in small spaces like automatic transmissions.

Roller bearings have been around for a long time—the earliest examples date back hundreds of years, although they weren’t widely used in automobiles until the early-to-mid 20th century. And since roller bearings are still used in many vehicles today, it pays to know how they work and where they’re normally located in case you ever have to replace the ones in your car or truck.

We offer high-quality replacement wheel bearings and hubs for all kinds of vehicles—so we know exactly how roller bearings work, and we’re happy to share our knowledge with you. Keep reading to get a primer on these important components and their uses so you can order replacements with confidence whenever you need them.

What Is a Roller Bearing?

Unlike ball bearings, which use perfectly spherical bearings housed in a cage to disperse loads and reduce friction during movement, roller bearings use cylinders. The main advantage roller bearings have over ball bearings is that they provide a larger contact surface, which makes them more rigid and stable while increasing their maximum load capacity.

Diagram showing ball vs roller bearing

Via koyo.jtekt.co.jp.

However, not all roller bearings are the same—in fact, roller bearings come in a variety of different types, each of which is best suited for different applications in heavy machinery. Let’s go over them to break down how they work and where you’ll find them.

Common Types of Roller Bearings & Their Uses

Spherical Roller Bearings

Spherical roller bearings might sound like a fancy way to describe ball bearings, but they’re actually completely different. In fact, spherical roller bearings don’t look spherical from the outside at all—they’re named that way because the internal shape of their outer ring is spherical, as well as the rollers inside.

Simple diagram of spherical roller bearing

Via Wikipedia.

Spherical roller bearings are useful for supporting heavy loads at slow to moderate speeds—especially in situations with angular misalignment, since the rounded nature of the bearings and inner edge of the outer ring makes dispersing the resulting forces easier. You’ll usually find them in gear boxes and steering columns instead of in wheels.

Best for situations with:

  • Heavy loads at modest speeds
  • Forces created by angular misalignment

Where they’re used in your vehicle:

  • Gear boxes
  • Steering columns

Cylindrical Roller Bearings

Cylindrical roller bearings are designed to align the bearings directly with the raceways on the inner ring. They have an extremely straightforward design, making them one of the simplest types of roller bearings.

Simple diagram of cylindrical roller bearing

Via Fractory.

The way cylindrical roller bearings are built makes them extremely effective at handling radial loads, even under high speeds. That’s why you’ll often find cylindrical bearings on the driven wheels of most road-going vehicles.

Best for situations with:

  • Radial loads
  • High-speed applications

Where they’re used in your vehicle:

  • Driven wheels

Tapered Roller Bearings

Tapered roller bearings are similar to cylindrical bearings, but their inner and outer ring raceways are designed as tapered cones, as well as the rollers themselves. Because the load-bearing surfaces of tapered roller bearings are angled, they can handle a certain amount of axial as well as radial loads.

Simple diagram of tapered roller bearing

Via Wikipedia.

You’ll often find tapered roller bearings in non-driven vehicle wheels, which can be in the front or rear (depending on whether the vehicles have front- or rear-wheel drive designs). Tapered roller bearings are often used in pairs arranged back-to-back for these applications, which allows them to handle axial forces in either direction.

Best for situations with:

  • Axial and radial loads
  • High-speed applications

Where they’re used in your vehicle:

  • Non-driven wheels

Needle Roller Bearings

Needle roller bearings use rollers that are considerably longer and thinner than the ones in standard roller bearings. Whereas a typical roller bearing is only marginally wider than it is long, most needle roller bearings are at least four times as wide as their length.

Simple diagram of needle roller bearing

Via Fractory.

Because of their relatively compact size, needle roller bearings are particularly useful for reducing friction in environments with limited space. You’ll often find them in automatic vehicle transmissions, as well as rocker arm pivots, compressors, and pumps.

Best for situations with:

  • High friction
  • Limited space

Where they’re used in your vehicle:

  • Automatic transmissions
  • Rocker arm pivots
  • Compressors
  • Pumps

Finding the Bearings Your Vehicle Needs

The more you know about different types of bearings, the easier it is to buy replacement parts for your vehicle when it needs them. But the most straightforward way to find bearings that are guaranteed to fit your car or truck is to use our handy online tool—just plug in the make, model, and year to see compatible wheel bearings and hubs that have been precision-machined and designed to provide lasting performance.

Have more questions about getting your bearings? We’re here to help! Just contact us to learn more about any product we offer so that we can make sure you’re getting exactly what your vehicle needs.