Though taken for granted today, the steering wheel was a transformative technology at the dawn of the age of the automobile.
As we enter the autonomous-vehicle age, some wonder whether the steering wheel might suffer the same fate as the tiller, which disappeared from cars after guiding the first horseless carriages.
Though the steering wheel’s origins are murky, race driver Alfred Vacheron signalled its ascent when he drove a Panhard automobile in the 1894 Paris-Rouen race. From that day forward, the days of the clumsy, nautical-derived tiller were numbered.
Today’s steering wheel has evolved into a high-tech, electronic device with numerous added functions. But its basic job of controlling the vehicle has changed little.
Now, as the industry looks to a future where computers assume control of more vehicle functions, the industry is rethinking the steering wheel.
Within the last year, major automakers — including Volvo and Mercedes-Benz — have shown concept cars with steering wheels that retract when the vehicle is driven autonomously. Some suppliers have developed systems to enable that transition.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra said last week that vehicles should keep traditional features such as steering wheels and pedals during the transition to fuller autonomy: “We think that having that capability when the steering wheel and the pedals are still in the vehicle is a very good way to demonstrate and prove the safety.”
Beyond that, Google’s famous pod car dispenses with the steering wheel altogether.
These days, an acronym-happy industry likes to use expressions, such as “HMI” for human-machine interface. As HMI goes, the steering wheel is about as good as it gets.
James Hotary, director of xWorks Innovation Center of Faurecia Automotive Seating NA, said the steering wheel’s iconic place controlling the vehicle might not last forever.
“I think we’re in many ways stuck in the paradigm of a steering wheel,” said Hotary in response to a question at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference in May in Detroit. “On the one hand, it’s a pretty darn good input device. It’s comfortable. You can put your hands in a bunch of different positions. It has stood the test of time. Completely autonomous vehicles are not going to be around anytime soon.”
But, says Hotary: “What happens when all of a sudden the manual part is the less-common-use case? Why are we keeping this legacy device around?”
IHS Automotive predicted last week that there will be 21 million autonomous vehicles sold annually by 2035.
The transition period toward more autonomous functions will be the interesting part.
“Because we don’t expect to imminently give up control, you’re still as a driver going to want that familiar, comfortable steering wheel,” said Jeremy Carlson, IHS Automotive principal analyst for autonomous driving.
“But that doesn’t mean you won’t see plenty of innovation happening there.”
Advanced supplier concepts
Indeed, carmakers and suppliers have been showing off various visions for the evolution of the steering wheel.
“There’s a lot more complexity being added to the steering wheel from an HMI point of view,” said Richard Matsu, director of engineering for Autoliv Inc., a Swedish supplier of safety systems and one of the world’s largest makers of steering wheels.
Autoliv, working with a Swedish sensor company called Neonode, introduced a steering wheel at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with zForce AIR MultiSensing technology.
Using optical sensors embedded in a steering wheel that features a series of glowing lights along its circumference, the zForce concept would allow drivers to interact, using gestures and motions, with various functions of the vehicle without removing their hands from the wheel to touch buttons. The driver could, for example, answer the phone by lightly tapping on one of the lighted sections.
The technology allows the car to know where the driver’s hands are placed and also would permit carmakers to program functions into the wheel, allowing them to eliminate mechanical switches and knobs on the instrument panel.
Says Matsu: “Many vehicle manufacturers want to know if your hands are on the wheel. They need to understand the driver’s condition regarding active-safety functionality.”
Matsu says Autoliv is talking to automakers about the development of the zForce technology.
The 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan, going on sale this summer, will feature what the carmaker is calling its most advanced steering wheel ever. The wheel features touch-sensitive buttons Mercedes is calling Touch Controls that respond to horizontal and vertical swiping gestures by the driver. Mercedes is calling the touch-sensitive buttons an industry first. Using them, the driver can control the infotainment system without taking hands off the wheel.
To retract or not?
Beyond adding functionality to steering wheels, carmakers and suppliers are wrestling with the next phase: steering wheels that are only in use part of the time, when drivers take control in vehicles designed with autonomous functions.
Volvo’s Concept 26 vehicle, which debuted in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, features a retractable steering wheel. Robin Page, Volvo chief of interior design, says Volvo chose to keep the familiar shape of the steering wheel.
“We wanted to keep that recognition of a round steering wheel,” he said. “People need to get used to autonomous drive, so being able to get back to that steering wheel and grab hold of it, that’s comforting. We decided to have it there as a recognizable icon.”
Volvo plans to put 100 semiautonomous XC90s on the road around Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2017 and will run a similar test in the U.S. at a date to be determined. The crossovers will not have retractable steering wheels, but they will allow drivers to move back and forth between autonomous and driver modes by touching buttons on the wheel.
Volvo chief of interior design
In its Vision Tokyo autonomous concept shown at the Tokyo auto show last fall, Mercedes-Benz showed a Connected Lounge in which occupants sit on an oval couch. The concept allows multitaskers to go to work or play in congested urban environments such as Tokyo. There’s an oblong steering wheel, but it almost seems like an afterthought.
In manual mode, the wheel sits in the middle of the cockpit. In autonomous mode, it moves behind a flap. The wheel, along with the pedals, is ready to re-emerge when the vehicle returns to manual mode.
IHS’s Carlson is sceptical about such intermediate steps as the telescoping, or retractable, steering wheel ever being widely produced. “I don’t see this telescoping steering wheel being very popular anytime soon, other than as a concept of what the vehicle could look like. When we talk about that process of moving from automated to autonomous, it’s going to be a long, drawn-out transition. These types of vehicles will coexist on the road for a long time.”
And that means the venerable steering wheel is likely to be a tenacious survivor, not surrendering its primacy nearly so easily as the tiller once did.