Eulogy for the Steering Wheel

By: Bridget Clerkin August 24, 2017
Carmakers including Ford and Waymo are patenting vehicles with removable steering wheels or without the gadgets at all in anticipation of self-driving technology.
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It caught on first in France, as global fashions often do, debuting at the world’s first-ever motor race, held in 1894, which invited horseless carriages to cross from Paris to Rouen.

The steering wheel was an instant sensation, a marker of progress in the then-still-developing automobile. Before they hit the scene, cars were controlled by tillers, an adaptation from the mechanisms used to steer boats.

By 1898, the demand for the rounded controls had spread, and steering wheels came standard in most French cars. That same year, the design was imported to Britain by Charles Rolls, who used it in models he built with partner Henry Royce.

It was only a matter of time before the steering wheel was central to the design of all cars worldwide. And though its aesthetics have been tweaked over the years, its purpose has remained largely untouched: the conduit between driver, engine, and tires, it still in many ways embodies the height of innovation it represented at birth.

But at 123 years young, the steering wheel has nearly outlived its usefulness.

And a new patent awarded to Ford may just be the final nail in the coffin.

Customized Experience

Earlier this month, Ford Global Technologies was awarded a patent for removable steering wheels—along with gas and brake pedals.

The innovation represents the next logical step in the evolution of our autos from human-driven to autonomous, easing us into an existence of permanent passenger-hood.

In the paperwork, the company describes a steering module that can click into place to attach to the car’s dashboard, and similar mechanics to apply—or detach—the pedals. While it specifically mentions the possible benefits the feature could offer test drivers attempting to exact more control over experimental cars, the document also touches on how the design would allow Ford’s customers to choose their own pace of adaptation to the technology.

But why get rid of the wheel? The idea is that self-driving cars will move so safely that they won’t need manual controls—and having a human at the helm would actually be more dangerous than having no helm at all. So ingrained is this belief in the automotive world that many models in the first wave of driverless cars, including some platforms proposed by Ford, will reportedly be wheel- and pedal-free.

But the optional amenities come with their own set of risks. Most current-day airbags are folded into steering wheels, an issue that Ford would have to reckon with should they follow through on the patent.

The plans suggest that two sets of airbags could be included in the cars—one in the steering wheel, and one in the steering column. Removing the wheel would activate the column’s bag, while locking it back into place would trigger the safety mechanism in the wheel.

Still, the idea is so paramount to passenger safety, it would likely need several rounds of testing to get the green light.

And while it’s unclear whether the manufacturing giant actually intends to build cars with removable human controls, they’re not the only company putting steering wheels in the crosshairs.

Ready, Set…

“Go.” It’s the only word you’ll need to know in the future in order to get your car anywhere.

At least, that’s what Waymo is hoping.

The Silicon Valley corporation’s vision for autonomous vehicles was also revealed earlier this month, when it was awarded its own patent for a new version of a center console.

Waymo’s patent sketch includes a giant “Go” button at the top of the console, which, when pushed, would fire up the car on its self-driving journey.

Along with controls for more typical car settings like radio volume and temperature, the sketch most notably includes a giant “Go” button at the top of the console, which, when pushed, would fire up the engine and start the car on its self-driving journey.

That a sister company of Google would move to replace a steering wheel with a button isn’t surprising, however. The tech giant was lobbying to get rid of the amenity long before it spun out its Waymo division—and the campaign was a great success.

Google’s persistence played a big part in getting the federal government to declare an autonomous system the legal equivalent to a licensed driver, a move that allows auto manufacturers to presuppose a future world where no one needs—nor acquires—driving skills when designing their new vehicle models.

In stating their case, Google presented the “hand-off” argument, saying the reams of research they had done on their own employees showed humans were unreliable in situations where they were needed to take control of the car back from the computer. Eliminating steering wheels and pedals all together—and, therefore, the possibility of creating such scenarios—would alleviate the problem, they argued.

But the idea won’t just change the way our cars work; it will revolutionize the way they look.

New Car Feng Shui

This concept from BMW images the interior of a car as a living room, since autonomous technology could negate the need for a driver-centric design.

In a world without drivers, who needs a driver’s seat?

The forward-facing focus of automobile interiors will go the way of the dodo once computers officially take the reins. But while the progress of autonomy will limit our skill sets, it will also unburden future designers from the ties of functionality.

New-age vehicles could become venerable entertainment wonderlands, including everything from swiveling seats, to bookshelves, to movie projectors.

In an especially futuristic idea developed by current art and engineering students, augmented reality—the same technology responsible for the phone-based phenomenon Pokémon Go—could be used to project images on the car’s windows, making the vehicle a mobile video game.

One such proposal incorporates sensors in the seats to give passengers the sensation of driving a sports car. In the fantasy version of the driving experience, presumably, the players will get to use steering wheels.

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