Are self-driving cars the beginning of the end for the steering wheel?

August 18, 2017

With the dawn of self-driving vehicles emerging on the horizon, many have speculated on the demise of the steering wheel. Some manufacturers, like BMW, vow that their cars will always have a steering wheel. Others, like Ford, openly embrace the idea of cars that could be operated without either a steering wheel or pedals, at least for use in rides-haring and other commercial self-driving car applications.

Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office awarded a patent to Ford Global Technologies for a removable steering wheel and pedals, designed explicitly for self-driving vehicles. Essentially, the new patent confirms that Ford is working on a vehicle that can be driven manually, or that can drive itself to a given destination without a physical means of intervention for the passenger.

That is in line with Ford’s previous comments that its first self driving vehicle would be what’s known as “Level 4,” which means it could drive without any human intervention, but would have a drive mode setup if you really wanted to take the wheel, so to speak.

Ford removable steering wheel and pedals patent

Ford removable steering wheel and pedals patent

With this new system in place, the car’s steering wheel could be removed, and the resultant hole in the dashboard would be covered by a trim piece designed to be stowed in the glove compartment. The car would be engineered with redundant airbags, with one in the steering wheel for when it’s attached, and one in the dashboard that is only activated once the wheel is removed.

The pedals are similarly removeable, and can offer either electronically simulated or mechanical feedback, depending on the car in which they’re installed.

Tellingly, the system is designed to work with both a traditional steering arrangement, wherein the wheel is physically linked to the steering mechanisms, and with a so-called steer-by-wire system, wherein steering wheel input is electronically relayed.

While the exact vehicles in which this system will be used is anyone’s guess, the wide adaptability implies Ford wants it to be widespread. That could potentially fit within the aforementioned rideshare and commercial realm, or it could include ordinary passenger vehicles. It’s even possible that a steering wheel will be optional on future cars.

Regardless, this is a major official step on the path to completely self-driving cars. It’s the proverbial earthquake that portends the end of the steering wheel as we know it.

-- by Aaron Miller

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