Though taken for granted today, the steering wheel was a transformative technology at the dawn of the age of the automobile.
As we enter the autonomous-vehicle age, some wonder whether the steering wheel might suffer the same fate as the tiller, which disappeared from cars after guiding the first horseless carriages.
Though the steering wheel's origins are murky, race driver Alfred Vacheron signaled its ascent when he drove a Panhard automobile in the 1894 Paris-Rouen race. From that day forward, the days of the clumsy, nautical-derived tiller were numbered.
Today's steering wheel has evolved into a high-tech, electronic device with numerous added functions. But its basic job of controlling the vehicle has changed little.
Now, as the industry looks to a future where computers assume control of more vehicle functions, the industry is rethinking the steering wheel.
Within the last year, major automakers -- including Volvo and Mercedes-Benz -- have shown concept cars with steering wheels that retract when the vehicle is driven autonomously. Some suppliers have developed systems to enable that transition.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra said last week that vehicles should keep traditional features such as steering wheels and pedals during the transition to fuller autonomy: "We think that having that capability when the steering wheel and the pedals are still in the vehicle is a very good way to demonstrate and prove the safety."
Beyond that, Google's famous pod car dispenses with the steering wheel altogether.
These days, an acronym-happy industry likes to use expressions, such as "HMI" for human machine interface. As HMI goes, the steering wheel is about as good as it gets.
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?"
IHS Automotive predicted last week that there will be 21 million autonomous vehicles sold annually by 2035.
The transition period toward more autonomous functions will be the interesting part.
"Because we don't expect to imminently give up control, you're still as a driver going to want that familiar, comfortable steering wheel," said Jeremy Carlson, IHS Automotive principal analyst for autonomous driving.
"But that doesn't mean you won't see plenty of innovation happening there."