The Steering Wheel Goes Semi-Autonomous

ZF has developed a new concept steering wheel for Level 3 automation.

Even though it may seem as though we’ll all be sitting back in swivel chairs watching Netflix on our connected devices when we might otherwise be driving the vehicles we are in, chances are we are going to be doing more of the latter and less of the former for the foreseeable future.

Yes, we will be doing some driving to get from A to B.

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So to that end, ZF has developed a new concept steering wheel for Level 3 automation. Level 3 is “conditional,” meaning the driver must be ready to take back control of the vehicle, and this means that the steering wheel must be gripped. To assure that happens, there are 10 capacitive sensors in the rim and an additional one on the inside circumference that determines appropriate hand orientation.

One way the driver will be alerted that the automatic lane-keeping and cruise control are insufficient to conditions and manual car control is in order is through a seven-inch LCD display in the center of the quasi-circular wheel. Another is through the LED lights that are embedded in the circumference of the steering wheel: blue indicates autonomous mode, white is illuminated when the driver is in control, red provides a warning and yellow indicates turn signal activation. According to ZF, the lighting regime is OEM-programmable.

Commands to do things like adjusting the HVAC settings are also done through the steering wheel.

In typical cars, the driver airbag is packaged in the center of the steering wheel. But in the ZF concept, there’s that screen. So the ZF safety engineers have come up with a way to package it on the back side of the wheel rim so that when it deploys it covers the screen and protects the driver.

Juergen Krebs, ZF vice president of engineering for steering wheel systems and driver airbags, says, “As new automated functions become more commonplace, advanced technologies employed in the steering wheel are important and can help improve driver safety and awareness of the current vehicle control mode.”