As industry engineers and designers contemplate the transition to more vehicle autonomy, they're looking especially hard at what happens in Level 3 automation, as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In the Level 3 scenario, the driver's hands could be completely off the steering wheel for extended periods. But drivers have the option of resuming control.
What happens to the steering wheel when it's not needed for driving? How does it return when the driver opts to retake control? And how fast should the entire transition happen? It's a complex issue, fraught with engineering and design challenges.
"Bringing the driver back in the loop in a safe way and acceptable time is a difficult task to solve and surely not only a steering wheel issue," said Manuel Poyant, senior manager, core engineering, steering wheel systems for ZF TRW.
"Challenges are diverse, not only technical but also ergonomic. Thinking of a situation where the driver's seat would be in a pushed back and in a semireclined position, would make it very difficult for the driver to be able to take control of the car in a short time."
That "will force OEMs and Tier 1s to rethink active- and passive-safety concepts," for example, positioning of the seat belt and the driver, says Poyant.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Rinspeed showed its Etos concept, equipped with a ZF TRW retractable steering wheel that is designed to enable the driver to move efficiently in and out of autonomous mode.