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By Stephen Williams

NEW YORK – Grab one before they’re gone. Some forward thinkers in the automotive cosmos are predicting that, after more than a century as a cockpit staple, the steering wheel will eventually go the way of leaded petrol and manual transmissions, 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. It honks.

We take the steering wheel for granted at our peril. 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 carmakers heavily researching an autonomous driving future, has not abandoned the analog, steering-wheel present. Arriving this year in the new E-Class range is a mostly round wheel (with a fashionable flat bottom edge on Sport models) 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.

a close up of a car

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“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. “The wheel is a new design — the first impressions for the driver are visible and haptic, and the materials are alloy and magnesium, foam, leather and wood also.”

Certainly, the technologies that are featured in the E-Class will most likely appear in future Mercedes models and filter to other brands. Those carmakers, including Ford, Tesla and General Motors, are also looking beyond the near horizon.

Cruise, the autonomous-car unit of GM, asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2018 to allow the company to test a limited number of autonomous vehicles without steering wheels. The agency said it was currently 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 Westbury on New York’s Long Island. “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 an invention that a couple of decades ago seemed 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.

The patent motorcar of Carl Benz was “steered” with a crank, or tiller-like mechanism, that pulled the wagon to the right or left. That was 1886. By 1894, French engineer Alfred Vacheron had devised a more “futuristic” method of control: His Panhard, entered in the Paris-Rouen road race that year, was equipped with a steering wheel. Vacheron finished 11th; the wheel was a sensation.

a close up of a bicycle: The car Karl Benz patented in 1886 didn’t even have a steering wheel.

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The car Karl Benz patented in 1886 didn’t even have a steering wheel.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Vacheron invention had become ubiquitous in the motoring universe. A bulb horn was installed on the rim — back then, it was needed to warn oncoming horses as well as pedestrians and cyclists. But the evolution was just beginning.

Later on, the steering column was afforded a tilt, easing entry and exit, and a turn-signal lever was added to the horn ring. In the 1950s, the column-mounted gearshift lever — affectionately known as the “three on the tree” — took center stage behind the steering wheel, where it lived until migrating to the floor after bucket seats became popular a couple of decades later.

Much more was coming. Automotive historians regard the modern airbag from Mercedes in the 1981 S-Class as the first to adopt a restraint system rather that act as just a seat belt replacement. In today’s cars, “we have worked very hard to optimize the air bag,” Fiege said. “We have made it a very small, round package. I think there will be further development there.”

a man sitting on the seat of a car: 1981 Mercedes S-Class. Picture: Daimler AG.

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1981 Mercedes S-Class. Picture: Daimler AG.

Luddites who may regret the loss of Vacheron’s simple vision — a ring — have no choices today, where the steering wheel in a modern vehicle must comply with federal safety standards to be street legal. But on the racetrack or in a concours, that’s another story.

For example, there’s no airbag in the luscious amber wood aftermarket rim from NRG Innovations, no buttons or switches to lower the audio volume or activate the cruise control, no fancy logos on the aluminum spokes. The look may remind one of a ’50s-era Jaguar or Datsun. Just don’t think about using this car on I-95.

“We’re strictly for off-road use, or for show cars,” said Jason Chou, marketing director for NRG in Los Angeles. He said that his wheels — usually consisting of a rim and a hub adapter — were popular with owners of Honda Civics, Mazda Miatas and BMWs.

And which wheel would Chou put on his own classic? No hesitation: “The Nardi Torino vintage wood, from the Alfa Romeo Spider, late ’80s.”

New York Times

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