Google’s self-driving koala car doesn’t have one. Recent concepts from Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have ones that retract when they aren’t needed. But for now, nothing is more intrinsically tied to the act of driving than the steering wheel. Does it have a long-term future?
That’s what gets pondered in this Automotive News story. For decades the steering wheel has been a seemingly irreplaceable part of the driving experience, and while it’s not perfect, it’s intuitive enough that attempts to replace it have never gone very far.
That’s because it’s a near-ideal form of human control for a car. But we’re entering an age where automakers and regulators seem to want human control to be on the way out. From the story:
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?”
Legacy device! What a depressing way to refer to one of the most important parts of a car. A steering wheel, and its steering feel, can easily separate a great car from a mediocre one.
At the same time we’re seeing existing steering wheels become more and more complex, with systems like Volvo’s that can detect when your hands aren’t on the wheel during semi-autonomous driving, or the buttons on the upcoming 2017 Mercedes E-Class wheel that can register gesture control.
And then there’s retracting steering wheels, ones that disappear or move out of the way somehow when they aren’t needed. We haven’t seen those on production cars yet but automakers have toyed with them in various concepts. It seems like that’s a plausible outcome for steering wheels as cars become increasingly autonomous.
Then again, I’m of the opinion that self-driving car adoption will take a lot longer than most experts and analysts predict—even if the technology is ready for prime time, getting drivers to not only trust it but spend money on it isn’t going to happen en masse in just a handful of years.
And since joystick-driven cars haven’t caught on by now, it seems probably that they—or other non-wheel means of input—ever will. It’s steering wheel or bust for a while.
But in the meantime, what form do you think steering wheels will take as cars increasingly don’t need a human operator?