Putting Gears In Motion: Animating Cars With HTML And SVG

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SVG <animateMotion> provides a way to define how an element moves along a motion path. In this article, Paul Scanlon shares an idea of how to use it by animating race cars in an infinite loop as easy as one-two-three!

Hello! And if you like HTML, you’ve come to the right place!

I love HTML. As an old-school front-end developer, I think it’s a hugely underrated skill. I’ve been writing HTML since ~2005, and today the browser alone can almost do all the things Flash could do nearly two decades ago!

One such trick HTML now has is called <animateMotion> — those familiar with Flash will remember this as The Motion Guide. I found this video from 14 years ago, but the method existed for a while before that:

Flash Tutorial - 5 - Motion Guide Layers (Watch on YouTube)

The idea is, you create a path for elements to follow… and that’s it!

Here’s an example of what you can do with <animateMotion>:

If you take a look at the MDN Docs, you’ll see a simple example of a red circle following a path on an infinite loop. The race cars in the live preview follow the same simple rules, and it works just like this!

Three animated cars in blue, green and pink following dashed lines
A simple example of what can be achieved using animateMotion. (See animation)

SVG Using animateMotion

Here’s a simplified version which I’ll use to explain some of the finer details.

Note: I’ve removed some of the path values for brevity, but you can see src for the below snippet at simple-version.html.)

<!DOCTYPE html>
    <title>Simple Example</title>
      <svg viewBox="0 0 307 184" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg">
        <g id="track">
          <g id="track-lines">
            <path fill="none" stroke="#facc15" d="M167.88,111.3..." />

          <g id="pink-car">
            <animateMotion dur="4s" repeatCount="indefinite" rotate="auto" path="M167.88,111.3..." />
            <path fill="#EC4899" d="M13.71,18.65c0.25-0.5..." />

The first thing to look at is the <g> element with the id of track-lines. This is the yellow dashed line that represents the path the car will follow.

You’ll also see another <g> element with the id of pink-car. Within this group is the <animateMotion> element. It has an attribute of path. The numbers used to form this path are the same as the numbers that form the track-lines. An <animateMotion> element is invisible, and its only purpose is to provide a path for an element to follow.

Speaking of which, below the <animateMotion> element is another <path> element, this is the pink car, and it will follow the path of its nearest neighbor.

animateMotion Attributes

There’s some additional attributes that the <animateMotion> element accepts; these are as follows:

  • dur: The duration of the animation.
  • repeatCount: The number of times the animation should loop.
  • rotate: This can be considered as an orientation to the path. It will ensure the element that’s animating around the path always faces the direction of travel.
  • path: As explained, this is the actual path an element will follow.

The MDN Docs show the <animateMotion> element as a child of an Svg <circle> shape e.g:

<circle r="5" fill="red">
    path="M20,50 C20,-50 180,150 180,50 C180-50 20,150 20,50 z" />

Whilst this approach works for shapes, it will only work if the element can accept a child. The SVG path element can’t, so wrapping everything in the <g> element allows HTML to work out where the coordinate system should start and which elements should follow the path. Sneaky ay!

And that’s it. I designed the track and the other elements seen on the preview link in Adobe Illustrator and exported the whole thing as an SVG. I then did a little bit of manual refactoring to ensure the cars were adjacent to an <animateMotion> element. Et voilà! A race track!


One small snag, the <animateMotion> element doesn’t natively observe prefers-reduce-motion. To work around this in the preview I’ve added a media query that sets any element with the class name of car to display: none;. Not ideal, but it is at least motion safe!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and if you have any questions, please come and find me on Twitter. @PaulieScanlon, oh and if you’re a better illustrator than I am, please, feel free to re-design the race track and cars, and I’ll be happy to convert it into code!

See you around the internet!

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