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120 years of steering wheel development – from the handlebar to the command center
The world’s first automobiles did not have a steering wheel, but were equipped with a simple steering lever or crank handle. Today, on the other hand, the steering wheel is the digital command center in the car.
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Steering wheel? Missing! The Benz Patent Motor Car of 1886.
The first step toward the modern Mercedes-Benz steering wheel was taken more than 120 years ago by the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, which switched from a simple steering crank or steering rod to a much more functional steering wheel.
This developed into the high-tech command center of today, which allows the driver to steer with precision and at the same time operate numerous comfort and assistance systems conveniently and safely.
Developers and designers work hand in hand – and wrestle over every detail. For example, every millimeter of a circuit board determines how elegantly the surface can be designed. The focus is on appearance and above all on haptics.
“Steering wheel design is a world of its own and a very special challenge that is often underestimated,” emphasizes Hans-Peter Wunderlich, Creative Director Interior Design at Mercedes-Benz, who has been designing steering wheels for around 20 years. “Apart from the seat, the steering wheel is the only component in the vehicle with which we have intensive physical contact. The fingertips feel small things that we otherwise do not perceive. If an unevenness disturbs or the steering wheel does not sit comfortably in the hand, we don’t like it. This haptic sensation is fed back to the brain and determines whether we like the car.”The emotional connection to a car is created through the sense of touch of the hands.
No steering wheel at all – the first automobiles
The world’s first automobile, Carl Benz’s Patent Motor Car from 1886, still came “without. Just like the “steel-wheeled carriage” of 1889 designed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach: neither had a steering wheel. They were only equipped with a simple steering lever or a steering crank. At that time, people were accustomed to pulling on the right or left reins of carriages to guide the horses in the desired direction.
The first steering wheel debuted at the world’s first automobile race in 1894
French engineer Alfred Vacheron is considered the inventor of the steering wheel. For the world’s first automobile race, the Paris-Rouen race in July 1894, he had put a steel-wheeled car into his Daimler-engined Panhard& Levassor installed a steering wheel instead of the usual steering lever. It achieved its goal – better control – because the steering movement of the front wheels could be distributed from a neutral center position to a stop over several revolutions of the steering column. This enabled more precise control and thus higher driving speeds. The Frenchman only came in 11th place – but the “Volant” prevailed.
Mercedes Simplex with inclined steering column and engine function control
In 1900, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft also equipped its Phoenix racing car with a steering wheel. In addition, the steering column was set at an angle, which made operation enormously easier. Nevertheless, each steering movement required a high effort. In the Mercedes Simplex models introduced in 1902, there were additional levers on the steering wheel to regulate essential engine functions such as ignition timing and mixture.
The 1920s to 40s: large “flounce” with horn ring
While the levers for manually adjusting the fuel mixture and ignition gradually became superfluous thanks to further development of the engines, one additional function from the early days of the car has remained to this day: the horn. The simplest form of car-to-x communication began with the balloon horn on the steering wheel rim, followed by the horn button on the steering wheel hub. In the 1920s, the horn ring made its debut on the steering wheel spokes. It was the standard until the 1970s and became more and more filigree.
In 1949, the horn ring also took over the function of actuating the turn signals or. the winker, which was common until the mid-1950s. To turn, it was simply turned to the left or right. A 20 cm long indicator arm then swung out of the side of the body to indicate the direction of travel. These direction indicators, which seem bizarre from today’s perspective, were replaced by the orange-yellow flashing lights, which were activated by turning the ring via a central control unit.
The 1950s: The debut of steering wheel gearshift and power steering
In the 1950s, the steering wheel became even more of a central interface between car and driver – a control center for new comfort functions and greater safety. In 1951 Mercedes-Benz introduced steering-wheel gearshift in the Type 300 “Adenauer-Mercedes” (W 186) and in the Type 220 (W 187). A comfort gain for driver and passenger. At that time, the front seats usually consisted of a full-length bench seat that could accommodate up to two front-seat passengers. Until the 1970s, the gearshift lever on the steering column remained a widespread method of transmission operation. At
Mercedes-Benz returned it in 2005 with the Direct Select automatic gear selector, freeing up the center console for other purposes. The lever for the headlight flasher was added as a further steering wheel function in 1955. Steering itself, however, was often energy-sapping, despite the large steering ratio and the large diameter of the steering wheel. For this reason, Mercedes-Benz introduced power steering in the representative sedan of the Type 300 in 1958.
The 1960s: Reduced risk of injury thanks to safety steering
With the “tail fin Mercedes” (W 111), Mercedes-Benz revolutionized automotive engineering in 1959, especially in terms of accident protection. The sedan was the world’s first vehicle to feature a holistic safety concept consisting of a stable passenger cell, crumple zones, a new safety steering wheel with a large, deformable impact plate that reduced the risk of injury in the event of a collision, and a steering column that was split and moved backward. This made it possible to avoid the so-called lance effect. In earlier vehicles with a rigid steering column, there were always serious injuries because the steering column pushed towards the driver after a frontal impact. To further increase safety, Mercedes-Benz introduced a patented safety steering system with telescopic steering column and impact absorber, which became standard in the entire passenger car range in 1967.
In addition, the first combined lever made its debut in the “tail fin” and the “pontoon” in 1959. In keeping with the motto “two become one,” it included the turn signal and headlight flasher functions. In 1963, the lever was expanded to include the windshield wiper and windshield washer functions. The windshield wiper was previously activated by a pull switch on the top of the instrument panel.
The 1970s and 1980s: All about safety
The four-spoke safety steering wheel introduced in 1971 in the 350 SL Roadster provided even better impact protection thanks to its wide padding plate with impact absorber. The spokes serve as supports for the rim. In the event of a collision, they absorb the forces and transmit them in such a way that the steering wheel rim cannot break. The horn ring had become obsolete and the buttons for the signal horn moved back to the center of the steering wheel.
1975: The first cruise control
The Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6 was one of the first automobiles to be equipped with a gearshift lever.9 in December 1975, a so-called cruise control system was introduced as standard. The world’s first radar-based proximity control system, Distronic, which maintains a constant distance to the vehicle in front, had its world premiere in 1998, also in the S-Class (220 model series).
1981: The first airbag
The further striving for the best possible safety led to another decisive change in the steering wheel design from 1981 onwards. The reason for this was the introduction of the first driver airbag in the S-Class (model series 126). The new restraint system, which offered an unprecedented level of safety in the event of a collision, was concealed behind the protruding impact plate. Developers rejoiced, designers tore their hair out. Because early airbags were bulky, the impact cup had to be significantly larger. In the course of further development, however, the vacuum-packed air cushion could be folded smaller and smaller, and the scope for designers became greater again. In 1992, the driver airbag became standard equipment in all Mercedes-Benz passenger car models. The passenger airbag followed in 1994. The airbag inflates to a diameter of 720 mm and a volume of 64 l within 30 ms upon impact. “Today we have the most compact airbag on the market,” says Marcus Fiege, head of steering wheel development at Mercedes-Benz.
1998: The first multifunction steering wheel
Another technical revolution was embodied by the multifunction steering wheel, which was introduced in 1998 together with the Comand (Cockpit Management and Data) system. Not only the multitude of vehicle functions, but also the advance of new devices for information, navigation and entertainment required a rethink of vehicle operation and the display concept. An important goal in the development of the S-Class 220 model series was to relieve the driver of so much stress that he or she could concentrate fully on the essentials: the traffic situation and the driving experience. A new, standard multifunction steering wheel controlled many systems and called up important information at the touch of a thumb. For the first time, the steering wheel was coupled with the car radio, car phone and a display in the center of the instrument cluster, on which up to eight main menus appeared.
2005: The reintroduction of the steering wheel gearshift
In 2005, the then new M-Class and S-Class models debuted with a redesigned cockpit: The automatic selector lever moved from the center console to the steering column. The new Direct Select gearshift created space between the driver and front passenger and again made operation easier. Additional steering wheel shift buttons enabled manual preselection of the seven gears, and the power of the six- and eight-cylinder engines could now be optimally exploited in every driving situation. From 2008, the 7G Tronic sports transmission with steering wheel shift paddles was available in the SL Roadster.
From polygonal to geometric, round shape with flowing spokes
With new functions, more and more cables, circuit boards and sensors found their way into the steering wheel. To hide them and the airbag, the steering wheels in the 2000s were rather bulky. Over time, the design has become increasingly refined. The initially polygonal shapes evolved into geometric forms with a circle in the center and flowing spoke shapes.
2016: Touch-sensitive touch control buttons in the then E-Class for the first time
The 2016 E-Class was the first car in the world to feature touch-sensitive touch control buttons on the steering wheel. They allow control of the entire infotainment system via finger swipe motions – without having to take your hands off the steering wheel. Like the surface of a smartphone, the buttons are touch-sensitive and therefore respond to horizontal and vertical swiping movements of a finger. This allows the driver to control all the functions of the infotainment system simply, logically and intuitively. Pressing the touch control buttons triggers the function selected with swipe gestures. A further four buttons per switch field are assigned familiar functions such as volume control and telephone control.
2020: The capacitive steering wheel in the new E-Class
The new steering wheel generation with capacitive hands-off recognition is now also being launched in the E-Class. A two-zone sensor mat is located in the steering wheel rim. “Sensors on the front and rear of the rim register whether the steering wheel is being gripped. You no longer need to move the steering wheel to signal to the assistance systems that you are in control of the vehicle,” explains Marcus Fiege. The touch control buttons integrated in the steering wheel spokes now also function capacitively. This reduces the control surfaces to the maximum mechanically.
The seamless control panels, divided into several functional areas, are precisely integrated flush with the spokes. The touches are detected and evaluated via capacitive sensor technology, just like on a smartphone, enabling intuitive operation via swipe gestures and pressing the familiar symbols. The high-quality materials are chosen to allow operation even in an interior that is heavily heated by the sun’s rays. “The system automatically detects where the finger is at any given moment. And the buttons are designed to withstand temperatures of over 100 degrees Celsius,” says Fiege.
The steering wheel is available in three versions: “Sport”, “Luxury” and” Supersport”. “It is the most beautiful steering wheel we have ever built,” says Hans-Peter Wunderlich. ” The proportions of the airbag, spokes and rim are absolutely harmonious. The airbag is not concealed, but “staged” as a flattering ball. In the “Luxury” variant, the spokes form a chalice inspired by elegant Callas flowers in black panel look, in which the ball floats. In the “Supersport” version, it is held by two double-decker spokes in black-panel look, reminiscent of sports car wheel wing nuts. In this way, the steering wheels stage high-tech and at the same time arouse emotions – in keeping with the design philosophy of Sensual Clarity, which expresses the bipolarity of intelligence and emotion.
The size of the steering wheel has remained the same compared to the previous generation. Mercedes-Benz has developed fixed sizes for steering wheels. The steering wheel diameter is 370 mm (“Supersport”) to 380 mm (“Luxury”) depending on the version. The steering wheel rim is 29 mm wide and 42 to 44 mm deep. Hans-Peter Wunderlich: “The steering wheel rim is the secret kingmaker of a steering wheel. Its geometrical elaboration is a science in itself, which cannot be found in any textbook. The rim must fit snugly in your hand. If it has one millimeter too much, it feels unpleasantly bulging. If it is one millimeter too little, it acts as if starved to death. And this impression then clouds the overall feeling for the car.”