Improvements in the Automotive Industry 2/3: 4D & 5D Steering Wheels!
Multiple times a year we are witnessing amazing advancements in automotive design and engineering from small start-ups to the great giants competing for all of the consumers' dreams and needs. As a result, cars are projected to become smarter, safer, more efficient, and environmentally responsible. We are also doing great in the department of aesthetics, as we have a surplus of astonishing exteriors and stylish interiors, offering all styles like retro, modern, and futuristic. It appears that now humanity has all of the checkboxes ticked in the list of automotive achievements!
While that may be true, I think there is a decline in innovation when it comes to the most prominent and used attribute of any vehicle —its steering wheel.
We have had 3-dimensionally adjustable steering wheels since the early 1980s, and we also had the option to have them heated, covered in Alcantara, have flat bottoms, lights, indicators or even replaced by a jet-like joystick all together like the infamous 1992 Saab 9000 prototype (see also Mercedes-Benz Vario, Oldsmobile Incas and Ford’s Wrist-Twist wheels). I think the 4th and 5th options are long overdue.
I Present to You the 4- and 5-dimensional Steering Wheel!
The 4th dimension indicates the ability to expand or contract the diameter of the wheel. With a single lever or an electronic switch, the driver first unlocks the hinges when parked, then with both hands on the grips he presses forward to expand and backward to contract the wheel. It is then locked again in place before driving.
This refers to the expansion of the grips. The thickness of the grips could be enlarged either by a pneumatic airbag (like the ones used in seats for lumbar support) or a mechanical system, similar to a centrifugal clutch mechanism (see a simplified concept below).
The baffles could be attached together with vertical walls, to cover most of the gaps underneath the elastic grips so that the palm and fingers will not indent the newly extended grips. Also, since the interior side of the grips is attached to the hub of the wheel by a movable spoke, the expansion of the grips could occur on the outer quarters of the circumference.
Why would you ever need this?
Have you noticed the difference between operating a large-radius steering wheel versus a small one on the same day? Did you notice that all sports cars for the past three decades offer a rather small and stiff wheel? How about the thickness of the grips?
You may say that people hardly ever use the adjustment of the wheel or the seats, but it suddenly becomes more needed for long drives, car-sharing (e.g. large or small hands of family members depending on age and gender), and re-selling (new driver may have a different preference in diameter size and grip width). Also, there is the fun factor of adjusting the radius for an easier control or a sporty feel (large radius is easier to turn, and small = sporty).
A small radius could become a part of the Sport mode, which nearly all cars offer today. Whatever your reasons might be, this will become the new standard in automotive features and will be sure to impress drivers and passengers, increase comfort, and decrease wrist fatigue.
How does it work?
The animation below demonstrates a simplified version of how this could work. This particular design is structured for a round wheel, as opposed to earlier shown flat-bottom sports wheel, but the idea in both is the same.
It consists of quarter rings that go in and out of each other, much like an old-fashioned TV antenna. The force to move them could be input from the driver by pressing forward or backward on the grips, and since the grips are hinged on the spokes connected to the hub, the pivoting spokes will move the grips toward and away from each other, resulting in contraction and expansion of the overall diameter.
Safety and Regulations
The US and international regulations for steering wheels state: “Steering wheels must be secure and not have any spokes cracked or missing. There are further requirements for the steering wheel lash, the steering column, the overall steering system, and for power steering systems.” Source
Center of Mass
When turning the steering wheel on a conventional car a full 360º you may have noticed that it is not making a concentric rotation (the points on the top and bottom of the ring move up and down, i.e. it does a controlled wobble).
This is because the center of mass of steering wheels are rarely in the center of the circle/ring of the wheel. This is done to save space when steering or the engineering and design required it to be lower or higher from the center.
Our design moves the outer mass away from the center equilaterally, resulting in seamless transition of weight without disturbing the balance.
The design also utilizes a hubless feature, meaning that the airbag and its housing are not part of the wheel. This allows for better structural rigidity and rids us of issues with weight and unbalanced distribution.
Some may have the concern that the moving parts can break during the crash. There are hinges engineered to withstand impacts higher than solid or welded elements, and they will be used to lock the wheel in place before driving.
This is part two of my series in improvements in the automotive industry. You may check out other works I’ve done and share your opinions in the comment section. If you don’t like this idea, I would still appreciate hearing from you. Happy motoring!