The Wheel Deal

Pullout: Steering Wheels: Curse Or Blessing?

If you'll excuse the pun, motoring lore revolves around the steering wheel. From urban legends (the taxi driver with a vice grip on the steering column instead of a wheel) to humour (don't drink and drive you might spill some and make the steering wheel sticky), the steering wheel is so central to driving that we take it for granted. What we don't think about is the steering wheel as one of the biggest causes of driver fatalities, nor do most of us consider a world without steering wheels.

The general layout of the driving position of cars, fundamentally unchanged since the 1930s, is an injury nightmare for a driver involved in a crash. The instrument binnacle protrudes into the cabin, often with sharp edges, control stalks cluster around the driver's hands (a common cause of broken fingers in frontal crashes) and the footwell plays host to pedals that can inflict horrific injuries and trap one in the vehicle. But the most serious problem is the steering wheel. The first cars drew on maritime experience and had tillers until an unknown designer realised that the combination of a steering wheel and a reduction gearbox would make vehicles easier to steer, especially in an era before power assistance when cars had very heavy steering because of their great mass and narrow tyres.

In a frontal crash, a tiller held the possibility of disembowelling the driver, whereas a steering wheel spread the impact over a broad area of the chest. It's unlikely the early car designers were thinking of such things, and when cars started becoming faster, the safety advantage of the steering wheel versus the tiller evaporated in any event. The problem is that the steering wheel was connected to the steering box via heavy brackets and supports, and the steering box itself was bolted to the chassis. It was an entirely unforgiving arrangement and millions of drivers died of steering wheel-inflicted chest and abdominal injuries before the problem began to receive attention. The first upgrade was to make the steering wheel particularly the rim of more pliant materials so that it would better absorb the impact of a driver hitting it. This still didn't solve the problem of a driver impacting the centre of the steering wheel squarely, so motor manufacturers added padding and experimented with collapsible steering columns. Designs included an expanded wire mesh insert in steering columns, tube-in-tube designs, and dual column or pivot designs. These innovations were an improvement, but were still found wanting in severe frontal crashes where the steering column was displaced backwards towards the driver.

Audi developed a novel solution called procon-ten in which steel cables tautened the seatbelts and drew the steering column into the dashboard in a crash. It was highly effective, but was withdrawn when it became apparent that airbags were cheaper and simpler. Airbags operate along with crumple zones and collapsible steering columns to cushion the driver's impact against the steering wheel and their effectiveness in reducing death and injury is a matter of record. A 64km/h offset frontal crash will almost certainly kill the driver of a typical vehicle manufactured around 1990, while the driver of a EuroNCAP five-star model in 2013 will probably walk away from the same crash with bumps and bruises. That's a stunning improvement in safety!

But there is one more solution to the problem of the steering wheel: remove it altogether. It's not as far-fetched as one may think Google has had a clutch of driverless cars roaming the US state of Nevada for a while already, and if autonomous cars eventually become a reality, we will no longer need to dedicate one corner of the cabin to a driver who is exposed to hostile implements like pedals, steering wheels and control stalks. Closer to reality, the improvement of automatic gearboxes and drive-by-wire technology has made it increasingly feasible for a car to be controlled by a multi-function joystick. Like in computer games, joysticks would allow braking, steering and acceleration from a single handy point, eliminating the steering wheel and other injurious hardware. But all this is for the future. Right now, the focus must be on taking maximum advantage of modern systems designed to defend drivers against their steering wheels. And if drivers in a modern airbag-equipped car adopt a safe seating position with their seatbelts fastened, they have a better chance than ever before in the history of motoring of keeping the steering wheel from claiming their lives.

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