Ever Wonder Why Your Steering Wheel is Round?
As a driver, your relationship with the vehicle’s steering wheel is as up-close-and-personal as you can get. Is it any wonder that car makers put so much effort into making this relationship as painless and as delightful as possible?
Apart from the gizmos attached to a steering wheel in a modern car – from cruise control to volume control – there is a scientific basis for making the steering wheel round. Well, almost round, if today’s fashionable wheels are anything to go by.
The first automobiles were steered with a tiller, the long rod or lever that is used to steer boats. A steering wheel was first used in Europe in 1894 and became standard on French Panhard cars in 1898. In the US, Packard introduced a steering wheel on the second car they built, in 1899.
By early the next century, the steering wheel had nearly replaced the tiller in automobiles.
The geek view
To get the geek’s view on why the steering wheel is round, we visited Quora.com, where we found these explanations:
Justin Kramer, who says he’s a mechanical engineer, offers this: “A steering wheel is round so that your hands locate in the same place regardless of the steering wheel’s orientation.
Spurned Rishav adds: “The round shape of a steering wheel is symmetrical. So the [wheel’s own weight] never pulls it no matter how the wheel rests. Had it been any other shape, whether a polygon or a cross or simply a lever rod, it would then tend to align itself along the vertical line of symmetry, thus making handling a difficult task.
“Moreover, due to the round shape of the steering wheel, the force needed to turn the wheel is equal when applied anywhere throughout its circumference. For any other shape, it would be different for different points on the perimeter.”
Phuntsok Topden has this to say: “While you are steering, you have the option to hold [the wheel] from any point as the handling position remains the same [on a circle]. Also … there are no edges to hit while turning / steering.”
The F1 innovation
Once automobile manufacturers realized that a circle is the perfect shape for applying the torque needed to steer a car in which the driver needs to perform hand-over-hand rotation, they stopped bothering about doing more research on the subject. Not so the makers of performance machines like Formula One racing cars.
According to a post by ‘fstd’ on Reddit.com, “Circular wheels are for people who need to turn hand-over-hand. [Formula One] wheels are designed to be used through their whole range of motion (never more than +/-180 degrees from center) without ever taking your hands off the wheel, whilst also having to fit into a much smaller space.”
An F1 steering wheel therefore evolved as a rectangular shape with a whole bunch of buttons, paddles, and lights that control just about everything on the car, including gear shifts, fuel flow, brake bias, and a myriad of functions that us comfortable road drivers have no use for. Aircraft pilots would probably feel right at home in an F1 driving seat, having experience with such do-it-all and know-it-all steering mechanisms.
Brave road car designers have in the past experimented with various shapes such as the rectangle used by Chrysler in some cars in the 1960s. Honda decided to be cheekily futuristic with the twin-lever
steering mechanism on the electric sports concept EV-STER, in 2012. The twin-lever steering system eliminates the G-forces experienced by the driver, by cutting out the steering wheel’s resistance and using two joysticks that can either be pushed or pulled. When making a left-hand turn you push the right joystick and pull the left one towards you. To make a right-hand turn you would do the opposite.
The most familiar steering wheel shape innovation today, however, is the flat bottom. The wheel is a perfect circle at every point except the bottom, where it “flattens” into a straight line. This shape is common among small cars, especially the high-performance ones like the Ferrari Murcielago or even the Volkswagen GTi (and the decidedly non-Ferrari but family-friendly like VW Jetta).
Since performance cars are usually small and cramped for space, the flat bottom is supposed to allow the driver a higher degree of thigh and knee comfort and make ingress and egress easier. Besides, it looks quite cool too.
Fashionable innovation may be the order of the day; but manufacturers are chary about reinventing the wheel when it comes to the steering mechanism of road cars.
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