Steering wheel

Steering wheel

A steering wheel (also called a driving wheel or hand wheel) is a type of steering control in vehicles and vessels (ships and boats). This article deals with steering wheels in cars; see steering wheel (ship) for the use in vessels.

Steering wheels are used in most modern land vehicles, including all mass-production automobiles as well as light and heavy trucks. The steering wheel is the part of the steering system that is manipulated by the driver; the rest of the steering system responds to such driver inputs. This can be through direct mechanical contact as in recirculating ball or rack and pinion steering gears, without or with the assistance of hydraulic power steering HPS, or as in some modern production cars with the assistance of computer controlled motors EPS. With the introduction of federal vehicle regulation in the United States in 1968, FMVSS 114 required the impairment of steering wheel movement, to hinder motor vehicle theft; in most vehicles this is accomplished when the ignition key is removed from the ignition lock.

Remote car audio controls are often included on the steering wheels of newer vehicles.


In 1894 Alfred Vacheron took part in the famous Paris-Rouen-Race. He called his vehicle like his name "Vacheron". But in fact it was a 1893 Panhard 4hp model which he had fitted with a "wheel steering"! That is believed to be one of the earliest employments of this principle. In the race which was won by a De Dion-Bouton Steam-mobile, Vacheron became 11th. (Source: the book "The World on Wheels - Volume I" by H.O.Duncan, printed in Paris 1927, page 456-457, picture of the Vacheron-Car at page 457) From 1898 the Panhard&Levassor Cars were equipped as standard with wheel steering.

C S Rolls introduced the first car in Britain fitted with wheel steering as he imported a 6 hp Panhard & Levassor from France in 1898. Arthur Constantin KREBS replaced the tiller with an inclined steering wheel for the Panhard car he designed for the Paris-Amsterdam race which ran from the 7th to 13rd of July 1898.

The first automobiles were steered with a tiller, but Packard introduced the steering wheel on the second car they built, in 1899. Within a decade, the steering wheel had entirely replaced the tiller in automobiles.

Passenger cars

Steering wheels for passenger automobiles are generally circular, and are mounted to the steering column by a hub connected to the outer ring of the steering wheel by one or more spokes (single spoke wheels being a rather rare exception). Other types of vehicles may use the circular design, a butterfly shape, or some other shape. In countries where cars must drive on the left side of the road, the steering wheel is typically on the right side of the car (right-hand drive or RHD); the converse applies in countries where cars drive on the right side of the road (left-hand drive or LHD).

Besides its use in steering, the steering wheel is the usual location for a button to activate the car's horn. Additionally, many modern automobiles may have other controls, such as cruise control and audio system controls built into the steering wheel to minimize the extent to which the driver must take his hands off the wheel.

An airbag, used to protect the driver in event of a frontal collision, is mounted inside a cover in the center of the steering wheel. Therefore, to prevent injury from the airbag deployment, it is important that the driver does not sit too close. Typical recommendations are a distance of at least 1-foot (30 cm) between the surface of the airbag cover and the driver's chest.

Before airbags, designs for energy-absorbing hubs existed, but were not used in mass production cars PDF Page 4

Power steering gives the driver an easier means by which the steering of a car can be accomplished. Modern power steering have almost universally relied on a hydraulic system, although electrical systems are steadily replacing this technology. Mechanical power steering systems (ex. Studebaker, 1952) have been invented, but their weight and complexity negate the benefits that they provide.

While other methods of steering passenger cars have resulted from experiments, none have been deployed as successfully as the steering wheel.

Other designs

The steering wheel is centrally located on certain high-performance sports cars, such as the McLaren F1, and in the majority of single-seat racing cars.

As a driver may have his hands on the steering wheel for hours at a time these are designed with ergonomics in mind. However, the most important concern is that the driver can effectively convey torque to the steering system; this is especially important in vehicles without power steering or in the rare event of a loss of steering assist. A typical design for circular steering wheels is a steel or magnesium rim with a plastic or rubberized grip molded over and around it. Some drivers purchase vinyl or textile steering wheel covers to enhance grip or comfort, or simply as decoration. Another device used to make steering easier is the brodie knob.

A similar device in aircraft is the yoke. Water vessels not steered from a stern-mounted tiller are directed with the ship's wheel, which may have inspired the concept of the steering wheel.

Adjustable steering wheels

Tilt Wheel
Developed by General Motors' Saginaw Steering Gear Division, the seven position Tilt Wheel was made available in several General Motors products in 1963. Originally a luxury option on cars, the tilt function helps to adjust the steering wheel by moving the wheel through an arc in an up and down motion. Tilt Steering Wheels rely upon a ratchet joint located in the steering column just below the steering wheel. By disengaging the ratchet lock, the wheel can be adjusted upward or downward while the steering column remains stationary below the joint. Some designs place the pivot slightly forward along the column, allowing for a fair amount of vertical movement of the steering wheel with little actual tilt, while other designs place the pivot almost inside the steering wheel, allowing adjustment of the angle of the steering wheel with almost no change it its height.

Telescope Wheel
Developed by General Motors Saginaw Steering Gear Division, the telescoping wheel can be adjusted to an infinite number of positions in a 3-inch range. The Tilt and Telescope steering wheel was introduced as an exclusive option on Cadillac automobiles in 1965.

Adjustable Steering Column
In contrast, an adjustable steering column allows steering wheel height to be adjusted with only a small, useful change in tilt. Most of these systems work with compression locks or electric motors instead of ratchet mechanisms; the latter may be capable of moving to a memorized position when a given driver uses the car, or of moving up and forward for entry or exit.

Swing-away Steering Wheel
Introduced on the 1961 Ford Thunderbird, and made available on other Ford products throughout the 1960s, the Swing-away steering wheel allowed the steering wheel to move nine inches to the right when the transmission selector was in Park, so as to make driver exit and entry easier.

Buttons on the steering wheel

The first button added to the steering wheel was a switch to activate the car's electric horn. Traditionally located on the steering wheel hub or center pad, the horn switch was sometimes placed on the spokes or activated via a decorative horn ring which obviated the necessity to move a hand away from the rim. A further development, the Rim Blow steering wheel, integrated the horn switch into the steering wheel rim itself.

When speed control systems were introduced in the 1960s, some automakers located the operating switches for this feature on the steering wheel. In the 1990s, a proliferation of new buttons began to appear on automobile steering wheels. Remote or alternate adjustments for the audio system, the telephone and voice control, acoustic repetition of the last navigation instruction, infotainment system, and on board computer functions can be operated comfortably and safely using buttons on the steering wheel. This ensures a high standard of additional safety since the driver is able in this way to control and operate many systems without even taking hands off the wheel or eyes off the road.

The scroll buttons can be used to set volume levels or page through menus.

The buttons can be adjusted manually for reach and height.

Gaming imitations

Certain game controllers available for arcade cabinets, personal computers and console games are designed to look and feel like a steering wheel and intended for use in racing games. The cheapest ones are just paddle controllers with a larger wheel, but most today's examples employ force feedback to simulate the tactile feedback a real driver feels from a steering wheel. This contributes to steering "feel" and is one of the hallmarks of a true "driver's car" or sports car.

See also

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