At first glance, since the birth of the car, the steering wheel has been the mechanical organ that has evolved the least in both form and function. However, it has never stopped changing, nor has it ever tried to break free from its circular shape. Originally very simple and dedicated solely to steering control, it has gradually become more complex. It has grown larger by gradually incorporating multiple secondary functions: horn, radio controls, speed regulation or limitation controls, gear shifting via an impulse control system, airbag. The material of the steering wheel has also considerably changed. Its frame, initially made of wood, became steel, then aluminium and finally magnesium.
In 2012, the PEUGEOT 208 introduced a major innovation in the driver’s position by launching the PEUGEOT i-Cockpit®. At the heart of the triptych made up of the touch screen and the head-up display, the steering wheel has become compact. It has been redesigned to ensure a better grip, while providing the driver with an even clearer field of vision and increased legroom. The PEUGEOT i-Cockpit® itself continues to evolve and has become widespread throughout the rest of the range. To date, more than six million users have adopted this revolutionary feature, which has remained unique in the automotive world.
The very first steering wheel appeared in July 1894 on Alfred Vacheron’s Panhard 4 HP in the Paris-Rouen race organized by Pierre Giffard, a journalist for Le Petit Journal, a Parisian daily newspaper published from 1863 to 1944. More than just a race, it was a great publicity stunt for a recent invention: the car. From Paris to Rouen, over a distance of about 100 kilometres, vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine had to demonstrate their endurance.
Equipped with a handlebar, the PEUGEOT cars, with 2 speeds and 4 cylinders, look like motorized cabs. On other vehicles, passengers are placed “opposite” each other as in a coach. Generally, manufacturers are struggling to move away from the horse-drawn carriage model.
More than a hundred cars with different types of engines (steam, oil, gasoline, electric, compressed air, pedals, …) took part in this race. Despite the real technological innovation represented by the steering wheel, Alfred Vacheron and his Panhard 4 HP came 4th, while Panhard and Levassor and the PEUGEOT brothers’ sons, on cars equipped with a handlebar, came 1st in a tie.
The steering wheel then gradually replaced the bar, which at the time served as a steering control for the cars of the time. Technologically, the car freed itself from its kinship with horse-drawn carriages. This is how the PEUGEOT Type 36 differed from the previous models assembled on the basis of motorised carriages in 1901. It was equipped with two major innovations: an engine hood at the front and a steering wheel instead of the handlebar.
The steering wheel, an innovative springboard for PEUGEOT
The “steering wheel” is the mechanical part designed to steer the wheels of a vehicle. It is part of the steering system that is operated by the driver.
The pioneers of the car actually realized that it was easier for the driver to steer a car using a circular steering wheel, rather than a bar or handlebar.
The shape of the steering wheel makes it easier to hold the steering wheel while turning, but also allows the effort required to turn the car’s wheels to be multiplied more effectively. The steering wheel can also be coupled to a power steering system at low revs to make it easier to rotate the steering wheel when manoeuvring.
While the steering wheel remains an architectural product, whose design is constrained by the visibility requirements of the handset, by the readability of the pictograms printed on the controls under the steering wheel, by the proper distribution of the air blown in by the fans and by ergonomic priorities, it has also become a springboard for innovations.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the widespread use of airbags and then power steering, for example, changed the paradigm previously reserved for the steering wheel. From directional, it became multifunctional and gradually incorporated equipment, in this case passive safety equipment, that was no longer directly linked to its primary function, which was to steer the wheels.
These innovations are also expressed through the changes in the materials used in the manufacture of steering wheels. Foaming techniques, leather graining and coatings are strong markers of PEUGEOT’s move upmarket. The foam steering wheel will be reserved for entry-level models, while full-grain leather will be the preserve of the upper versions. By being diverse the steering wheel offers other levers for moving upmarket: with its shape – which includes thumb rests or flattened areas, with the perforation of the leather – which gives extra sensitivity to the touch, with the presence of pads (GTi, GT-Line) or coloured stitching – which typify the steering wheel in a sporting world, with there being paddles inherited from motor racing – which allow gear shifting.
In fact, motor sport is often an influence when it comes to technological innovations or sophistication. Like the PEUGEOT 908, which has all its controls on the steering wheel, the steering wheels of the brand’s production vehicles now adopt the same principles. Depending on the level of finish, the radio, cruise control and even telephone controls are located on the spokes of the steering wheel.
PEUGEOT has taken innovation even further by offering a revolutionary interior based on a compact steering wheel, therefore smaller, a touch screen and a head-up display: the PEUGEOT i-Cockpit As the central element, the compact steering wheel makes handling easier and increases driving sensations tenfold. With less need to open your arms, there is less range of movement during manoeuvres, which enhances the driver’s speed and agility while providing a more relaxed driving position. The PEUGEOT i-Cockpit continues to evolve and has become widespread across the entire range (it now equips the PEUGEOT 208, 2008, 308, 3008, 5008, 508, Rifter and Partner). In 2016, for example, with the launch of the SUV PEUGEOT 3008, the steering wheel became even more compact. Redesigned with a two-plane rim, it provides better grip and frees up even more of the driver’s field of vision and legroom. To date, while PEUGEOT continues its work innovating with the i-Cockpit 3D, launched in 2019 on the new PEUGEOT 208 and 2008 models, this revolutionary and unique driving position has attracted nearly 6 million drivers. The PEUGEOT i-Cockpit and its iconic compact steering wheel have therefore become pillars of the brand’s DNA.
Ultimately, these changes are part of a simple ambition: to provide a technical response that makes it possible to design interiors with a stylistic vision of the future and to provide passive safety at the highest level with advanced and compatible technologies whatever the destination of the car in the world.
Towards the disappearance of the steering wheel on autonomous vehicles?
In 2014, the “Google-Car” launched the trend of a 100% autonomous car whose distinctive feature is to have neither steering wheel nor accelerator and brake controls. A simple button, integrated on the dashboard, forces the vehicle to stop.
From July 2015, PSA has deployed its “Autonomous Vehicle for All” AVA programme and became the first manufacturer to test the autonomous car on open roads in France. This simple and intuitive programme includes a wide range of functions that will gradually lead to partial and then total delegation of driving to the car, if the driver so wishes.
Several driving modes are under consideration with degrees of automation of the autonomous vehicle ranked in five levels by the OICA (International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers). These are as follows:
- Level 1 “Hands on”: the driver must keep his hands on the steering wheel,
- Level 2 “Hands off”: the driver can do something other than driving, but must supervise the driving at all times so that he or she can instantly take back control,
- Level 3 “Eyes off” (without visual supervision): the driver no longer needs to supervise driving at all times, but must be able to take back control,
- Level 4 “Mind Off” (without human intervention): the driver no longer has to take control of the vehicle,
- Level 5 “Driverless”: 100% autonomous, driverless driving.
Today, level 1 and 2 driving assistance functions, from the AVA programme, are already available on certain models in the PEUGEOT range. These include for example:
- Active Lane Departure Warning (ALDW), which makes a trajectory correction by progressively counter-steering to keep the vehicle in its initial lane,
- Full Park Assist, which provides active parking assistance on the new PEUGEOT 208 by automatically controlling the steering system, acceleration and braking to enter and exit a parking space,
- The Driver Attention Alert, which assesses the driver’s state of alertness by identifying lane deviations from road markings and detects the presence of hands on the steering wheel.
In 2018, at the Paris Motor Show, PEUGEOT unveiled the e-LEGEND concept, a technological manifesto serving the pleasure of driving and the experience on board an autonomous vehicle. Technological, ultra-connected, intelligent and attractive, the PEUGEOT e-LEGEND offers a new “Responsive i-Cockpit” which capitalises on the PEUGEOT i-Cockpit® characteristic of the brand’s models. In particular, it consists of a head-up display with 3 dials and an ultra-compact steering wheel that folds away under the sound bar in order to completely clear a large 49-inch screen. Occupants can then indulge in their favourite pastimes: playing the integrated video game or watching a movie.
Autonomous driving will impose a change in the use of the car. While it’s now entirely feasible to have a steering wheel that fades into the dashboard at the driver’s request to give the driver more room, the next level, still a long way off, will be Level 5, where the steering wheel can be completely dispensed with. Just like music lovers who love vinyl records, tomorrow’s car enthusiasts will be identified by their car equipped with a steering wheel. They will be the new “lonely knights, heroes of modern times”. Like David Hasselhoff driving “KITT” in the TV series Knight Rider.