Forward thinkers in the automotive cosmos are predicting that, after more than a century as a cockpit staple, the steering wheel will go the way of leaded gas, a victim of “disruptive processes,” replaced by artificial intelligence. Essentially, there won’t be one.
For now, the steering wheel continues to link driver and car. Wrapped in soft leather or lush Alcantara, it might be something we caress. Sometimes we smack it in frustration. We spin it with two hands, or sometimes with two fingers, or sometimes our knees.
Besides the seat, it’s the only component in the vehicle with which we have intense physical contact, said Hans-Peter Wunderlich, creative director for interior design at Mercedes-Benz.
“The fingertips feel little things that we normally don’t notice,” he said. “If an unevenness is disturbing or the steering wheel does not fit snugly in our hands, we don’t like it.”
The German brand, one of many car-makers heavily researching an autonomous driving future, has not abandoned the steering wheel yet. But it is outfitting it with new high-tech touches. Arriving this year in the E-Class range is a wheel that houses a dual-zone sensor that can detect if the driver’s hands are on it. Additional touch control sensors are incorporated into the spokes that activate digital signals for a variety of safety functions.
“If you’re in automated mode, with the sensors we can detect the driving situations and we don’t have to disturb the driver,” said Marcus Fiege, manager of Mercedes’ steering wheel development, who is based in Stuttgart, Germany.
Certainly, the technologies that are featured in the E-Class will appear in future Mercedes models and filter to other brands. Those carmakers, including Ford, Tesla and General Motors, also are looking beyond the near horizon.
Cruise, the autonomous-car unit of GM, has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow the company to test a limited number of autonomous vehicles without steering wheels. The agency said it is reviewing GM’s petition.
But some driving habits — honed over a century — die hard. A steering wheel represents a degree of comfort and control. And some buyers have certain ideas about them.
“Thick. They want a thicker wheel,” said David Yavel, a client adviser at Rallye BMW in New York City. “Not in terms of diameter or circumference, but in terms of a thick nappa leather grip. And heated. A heated steering wheel is now a must for most customers.”
For a device that seems essentially straightforward, the modern steering wheel is really quite complicated. It has sprouted a vast array of buttons, levers for cruise control and headlamp flashing, paddle shifters, chopped-off bottoms, containers for air bags and, yes, heat coils.
It wasn’t always like this.