They are exquisitely sensitive these days. You can operate them with your little finger. Or with your knee. Some people probably even try with their nose.
Yes, we’re talking about steering wheels. Given the array of convenient features they have today, hardly anyone still recalls what they were like in the beginning. Instead we’re all talking about the future when steering wheels will no longer be found in cars. They will simply have no place in vehicles that drive themselves.
Let’s take a brief look at the history of the steering wheel, which has been in existence since the 19th century. In 1894 Alfred Vacheron entered the famous Paris-Rouen race and equipped his 1893 Panhard with a volant, or steering wheel. That race in France in 1894 is one of the earliest known instances of a wheel-shaped device being used to steer a car.
In 1898 the French manufacturer introduced a steering wheel in all its models. Other manufacturers followed suit – and the steering wheel became a set part of automotive design. Early on, carmakers also began installing bulb horns on steering wheels, for as traffic increased, it became necessary to warn other drivers as well as pedestrians and cyclists.
First wood, then metal, now plastic – but always with a horn
The steering wheel is attached to the upper end of the steering column. A number of different control levers are integrated into the column. The carmaker’s logo is often placed on the hub or in the middle of the wheel.
What is the right way to hold a steering wheel?
Back to the present: what is the correct way to hold a steering wheel? Your arms should be slightly bent, and your hands should hold the wheel on the sides (where the 9 and 3 would be on a clock). When you turn the wheel you should pass one hand over the other, to ensure that one hand is holding the wheel at all times. The 9 and 3 positions should also be used in curves. That gives you the best control over the car in any situation – even if you suddenly have to swerve.
Steering with one hand or a single finger is dangerous. Driving with your little finger, your knee, or even your nose is grossly negligent. So for the sake of everyone’s well-being, let’s turn the wheel properly!
In the early days steering wheels were made of a metal substrate covered with wood. Over time, the wood was replaced by plastics like Bakelite, not only for reasons of cost but also because wood can split and cause injuries in accidents. In the 1950s it became popular to line steering wheels with real or artificial leather, which gave drivers a better grip.
Most of today’s steering wheels have an almost excessive number of functions. But whether or not we’re nostalgic, the horn has always been a feature. Since the 2000s, many operating elements have been added. Radio controls such as tuning and volume, cruise control, phone and on-board computer functions – all of these can be operated by little buttons on what are now called “multifunction steering wheels.” And airbags have been added as well.
Modern cars have power steering. This is what lets drivers operate their vehicles literally with just their little finger, as noted above. But of course no one should be doing that! Power steering is intended as a comfort feature. It overcomes the forces between the tires and the road with less resistance. Large trucks and construction vehicles often even have a special knob installed on the wheel to make maneuvering easier.
The diameter of a steering wheel depends on the size of the vehicle. In passenger cars the wheels have a diameter of around 40 centimeters. Truck and bus steering wheels have diameters of up to 80 centimeters to handle the greater steering forces. To accommodate the different statures of individual drivers, steering wheels today can also be adjusted both vertically and longitudinally.
Audi’s Procon-ten was a standard safety feature
Steering wheels pose a considerable risk to driver safety in accidents – although less so today than in the past. Engineers have spent decades minimizing the risk by their choice of materials and use of technology. One result was Procon-ten, a system developed by Audi. It consisted of steel cabling around the engine block that, in the event of a frontal collision, pulled the steering wheel toward the dashboard at lightning speed.
One of the first attempts to “defuse” the danger associated with steering wheels was to set the hub of the wheel back relative to the wheel itself. A major advance was ultimately the integration of airbags into steering wheels. A sensor system registers a collision and inflates the bag in a fraction of a second. Airbags have prevented many drivers from suffering serious injuries.
The steering wheel is dying out
What will happen in the next few years?
Will cars have steering wheels at all? One thing is certain: autonomous vehicles are radically transforming driving as we know it. Just as the internet one did, then the smartphone and the digital assistants from Amazon, and soon the applications of artificial intelligence yet to come. These are all examples of what are known as disruptive processes. They are innovations that completely break from traditional business models and have what it takes to spread nearly everywhere.
If you buy a new car today, you will already find many features on offer that were developed in autonomous vehicle labs. These include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and intelligent braking systems. The automotive industry has defined five levels of autonomous driving, and new cars have already reached levels two and three.
The aim is for people to one day be 100% confident about self-driving cars. Just how complex this task is, especially in urban contexts, can be seen in tests with the autonomous e-Golf1 in Hamburg. But it is also clear that one day the steering wheel will simply become superfluous.
Futurologists at the Volkswagen Group are currently drawing a clear distinction in predictions that some cars will have steering wheels and others will not. Individually owned cars in all likelihood will still have them, because people still want to experience the pleasures of driving. Larger cars are expected to do away with them, because of the obvious appeal of vehicles that can assume the duties of a good chauffeur. The experts expect completely autonomous cars to be used primarily for public transport purposes, for example in the form of taxis. Particularly when a number of passengers are sharing a vehicle, the question arises of who will do the driving – and it is best to leave that to the car.
The I.D. VIZZION2 study affords a striking glimpse of what a car interior could look like in the future. The steering wheel is gone. Passengers sit in a space resembling a living room, in which they can sleep or watch the scenery outside. And if they desire privacy, they can darken the windows.
1e-Golf: Power consumption, kWh/100 km: combined 14.1 (17 inch) - 13.2 (16 inch); CO₂ emissions combined, g/km: 0; efficiency class: A+
2Study/ Concept Car