Is there room for the steering wheel in tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles? Depends on whom you ask, it seems.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra personally met with the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation last week in a bid to win approval for a batch of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt prototypes that would eliminate the steering wheel entirely. Some experts believe there will be no need to have wheels inside autonomous vehicles, especially those being used for ride-sharing services.
Not everyone is ready to banish the steering wheel, however, even in self-driving vehicles, as Honda is demonstrating with the Augmented Driving Concept it plans to bring to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early next month. It takes only a quick look to recognize that something is a bit different about the wheel in the CES show car.
It might come as a surprise but the steering wheel actually dates back to at least the early 1700s, when it was widely used on ocean-going ships. On automobiles, however, many early models relied on sticks, or tillers, rather than wheels. It was only at the dawn of the 20th Century that steering wheels won out.
Throughout the past 40 years, they’ve gone through a significant evolution, and motivated both by concerns about safety and the desire to put controls right at a driver’s fingertips. New designs tilted, telescoped and could be crushed to absorb impact energy during a crash. Then airbags were integrated, as well as all manner of switches and buttons to operate the radio, the cruise control and other vehicle functions.
But, if you have no driver onboard, why have a steering wheel at all? That’s a question Barra posed in her meeting with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. GM wants to launch a pilot ride-sharing program that would eliminate the driver and thus would need no controls, opening up another seat for a passenger.
Other manufacturers, such as Ford, have been working on ways to let a steering wheel pop out of the instrument panel for times when one might be needed, then tuck away when the vehicle is operating fully autonomously.
The Honda Augmented Driving Concept takes a middle road. For one thing, it’s designed to let a motorist choose between eight different modes, from fully manual to fully autonomous. So, in at least some of those modes, you’d need a steering wheel. But it also is designed to function quite differently from those in today’s vehicles.
“Customers will be able to enjoy mobility in new ways when freed from the responsibility of driving,” Honda said in an advance news release. “At the same time, customers may still want to experience the emotion and thrill of driving.” So the new software “features a seamless transition from autonomous to semi-autonomous driving operation.”
As one observer suggested, the show car’s wheel bears an uncanny resemblance to a kitchen colander. It abandons the numerous buttons found on today’s designs, but it still has plenty of functionality. For one thing, you tap it twice to start the car. And, rather than having a gas pedal, a motorist operating in one of the manual modes would push on the wheel to accelerate, pull on it to slow down.
As for which mode the concept operates in, sensors surrounding the cabin are designed to continuously monitor the driver, taking over, to various degrees, as needed.
There’s an ongoing debate over the degree to which cars will migrate to autonomous driving over the coming decades. In a world where all vehicles are fully self-driving, steering wheels might be as useless as our appendix. But unless and until that happens, wheels are likely to stick around. While Honda says it is using the design in the Augmented Driving Concept as a learning lab, it signals that even if they remain an essential part of the automobile, steering wheels may yet go through still more evolution.