SAGINAW, Mich. — Someday, as the industry pursues autonomous driving and connected traffic, vehicles might not need steering wheels. But steering supplier Nexteer Automotive is wondering: If steering wheels survive, why do they need to spin?
The supplier is deep into the development of a product it has branded Quiet Wheel. The name is misleading — the technology has nothing to do with sound. It has everything to do with movement, or the lack thereof.
Nexteer is positioning itself to supply steering wheels that do not need to rotate to turn a vehicle's wheels, relying instead on digital communications. The result could be added safety, according to Nexteer: Immobilizing the wheel eliminates the danger of a rapidly spinning steering wheel harming a driver.
Quiet Wheel is not yet in any production vehicles. Nexteer says it is in development to support Levels 3 to 5 automated driving, which will move to market in the coming years. According to NHTSA, Level 3 requires the driver to be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times. Level 4 means the vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions, while Level 5 is full automation, a level that is still many years away.
Nexteer's premise is that when a vehicle is in autonomous mode, its steering wheel would remain in a fixed position while the vehicle moves and makes turns.
"Quiet Wheel is a result of steer-by-wire," said Patrik Ryne, engineering manager of the brand's steer-by-wire group, speaking at the supplier's r&d track here.
"If you're driving autonomously, meaning a computer in the vehicle is sending the signals, you're no longer the driver," Ryne said. "Then why would we have this steering wheel move around? So we just turned it off."
Ryne said automakers are interested in the Quiet Wheel technology, but that wasn't the case initially.
The supplier showed the concept at its testing center to two automakers, and both of them responded negatively at first, he said. Their pushback was, "Our drivers want to see the steering wheel spinning so that they know it functions, so that they know what the car does," Ryne recalls.
Nexteer engineers put the automakers' representatives into a vehicle with the system and changed their minds. They agreed after one lap on the track that a steering wheel will no longer need to spin, he said.
"Today, you have control when you're turning the steering wheel," he said. "If there's a machine doing it in front of you, and you're sitting there watching it, it can feel scary. But to have a safe environment, you need to have it quiet."