A steering wheel in a car is an extension of our hands. It should be far enough away from the driver to ensure constant and close contact with the hands, be comfortable and preferably multifunctional.
The innovative solution to equip it with additional buttons and switches to perform various functions while driving was to the taste of motorists. The placement of these elements at the rim (usually horizontally) allows you to operate them without taking your hands off. This is how multitools, as some companies call them, or multifunction steering wheels, came into being.
What you can control with the multifunction steering wheel
The multifunction steering wheel is used like a traditional steering wheel to control the car. Unlike the latter, however, it serves a number of other purposes, allowing the user to better focus on the road: the user operates various in-car devices without removing his hands from the rim.
Most modern mid-range models allow you to control the audio system, the phone, as well as virtually the complete on-board menu (including cruise control) in this way. Multitools designed for luxury premium models (such as the Mercedes S-Class or Jaguar XK) are additionally heated and can be used to select the gear ratio. This is handled by special buttons, which can be used to quickly change forward and reverse gears.
What are multifunction steering wheel like?
In today’s production models, the steering wheels have a variety of shapes. For example, the Fiat 500 has a slightly flattened rim at the top and bottom, and one version of the Citroen C4 had a steering wheel with a fixed (fixed) center – only the rim rotated, and the rest was one with the steering column and dashboard.
The steering wheels of racing cars are the most versatile. In Formula 1 sports cars (in addition to the original unusual shape), they have a myriad of buttons built into them. They are used both for direct control of the vehicle, including gearshifting and suspension adjustment, and for other services and communication with the service departments. By selecting the appropriate key, the pilot can also quench his thirst.
In so-called autonomous vehicles, i.e. those that do not require human intervention, the steering wheel may be redundant. To get to the desired destination, it is enough to choose a route using the extensive modern GPS navigation system, and then press the “Start” key. In such cars, not only the steering wheel turns out to be unnecessary, but also the driver himself, whose “job duties” are reduced to the role of the passenger.
How the control works on the multifunction steering wheel
Over the past couple of decades, many functions have moved to the steering wheel, leaving their traditional positions on the center console or dashboard. A number of options have been integrated into the new steering wheel technology:
- sound system controls, usually with volume control;
- a selection of preset radio stations;
- cruise control, including buttons to adjust and change speed;
- phone responses, often with Bluetooth or similar wireless connections.
Some automakers go even further in using the steering wheel to improve overall convenience and safety by adding components that control air conditioning, heated steering wheel and even access to the trip computer. More often than not, such functionality is installed at the factory, either as standard equipment or as an optional extra. Some companies, such as Pioneer, sell remote steering wheel remotes for their stereo systems installed later.
The main purpose of multitools, as automakers assure you, is to improve driving safety by placing frequently used items in one of the most convenient places, right under the driver’s arm. The pilot’s eyes and hands are extremely important tools in driving, and if he does not take his eyes off the road and his hands off the steering wheel, safety will increase for everyone in the car and nearby.
However, when all these gadgets are gathered on the steering wheel, are the functions and gauges easier to control, or does it become harder for the driver to get them right?
Convenient steering gears
Using the steering wheel controls is as easy as possible. Manufacturers place the keys where they are easy to reach with your thumbs without having to drop the steering wheel.
Even in the most ergonomically designed cars, the presence of elements such as radio controls on the center console between the two front seats requires the driver to take his eyes off the road for a second or two, and sometimes more, to look for the volume knob or radio tuning pad. Then one hand must leave the steering wheel to change the radio channel or turn up the volume.
With the multi steering wheel, unnecessary movements can be avoided. At first, the driver will have to peek, remembering which toggle switch/button, for example, controls the volume, but after a few trips he gets used to their placement. Already after a short practice the thumbs will move automatically. The only inconvenience is that it is difficult to change habits when you have to work with a different layout, say, when changing cars.
At first, the steering wheel was very simple in design, but over time it took on the shapes we know today. Engineers realized that it wasn’t easy to steer the car with lever handles, hence the round shape. It makes it easier to steer, and it also distributes the force needed to turn the car’s wheels more efficiently.
The material has also changed. Initially the rim was made of wood, later steel, aluminum, and now even magnesium.
Not surprisingly, the direct purpose of the steering wheel was supplemented with new functions. Remaining an element of the interior architecture, this device, whose design had to take into account the visibility of the clock, the readability of the pictograms on the controls, the correct distribution of the air supplied by the fans and ergonomic issues, became a springboard for innovation.
It became broadly functional through the gradual integration of elements related to passive safety, which were no longer directly linked to its primary function, wheel control. Drivers were able to pay more attention to driving and less to reaching for the radio or fiddling with their phone. They had the best chance of reacting to momentary situations that might otherwise lead to an accident.
As electronics became smaller, cheaper and more common, various improvements were made to the steering buttons. Today, quite a few variations of an advanced steering set of controls have been developed that interact with the on-board computer. Electric cars and hybrids have a particularly wide range of functionality.
Depending on the amount and type of information the driver wants to see on the LCD instrument display with the traditional speedometer in the center, they can use special elements on the steering wheel to display power consumption, battery life, fuel economy and more, including access to telephony and voice control.
Today’s multirudders feature other upgrades, whether it be the shape (thumb rests on the rim, recesses on the flat surfaces of the buttons, etc.), perforated leather coverings for added tactility, brand and model logos (GTi, AMG and others), creative lighting, color stitching for a sporty look or special “racing” paddles for shifting gears.
Motorsport often inspires manufacturers with technological innovations, but they don’t stop there. The same autonomous driving has forced a change in approach to using the steering wheel. Already, there are options that retract into the dashboard at the driver’s request to give him more space for other activities. The next stage will be a level where it will be possible to do away with the steering wheel entirely, setting the route programmatically and controlling the car with voice commands.