Episode 2: Steer and let steer.

Very soon after the invention of the automobile by Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, the steering wheel revolutionised the operation of the motor car. It is still an important man-machine interface in today’s vehicles. It has long since not only transmitted steering inputs, but is a versatile command instrument besides. However, in self-driving cars it will take a back seat at least some of the time.

The steering wheel as a command centre.

An all-round perfect concept: in 1894, Alfred Vacheron became probably the first motorist in history to use a steering wheel during the world’s first automobile race from Paris to Rouen. The Frenchman steered his Panhard powered by a Daimler engine to an 11th place finish in highly promising fashion.

Cars are still inconceivable today without the steering wheel as a man-machine interface. It serves to transmit steering inputs precisely to the wheels and at the same time is a command centre for a host of systems, from the horn and the voice-operated navigation system to the hands-free telephone, the on-board computer and the audio system.

Today, the push of a button is complemented by swiping gestures and touch commands: for the first time, touch-sensitive Touch Controls on the steering wheel of the new E-Class logically take the functionality of the familiar and accustomed steering wheel buttons into the future. The control fields offer the same intuitive and versatile operation as the display of a smartphone – from selecting personal music to commanding the car to park itself.

The steering wheel: a big step forward.

Things are thus really spinning on the steering wheel. Motorists in the first years after 1894 couldn’t even dream of it. But for them, the steering wheel itself was a major invention and a big step forward. Before then, cars only had a steering lever that looked like an upside-down tiller from a boat, and it also worked in a similar fashion.

The steering wheel offered a host of advantages in comparison: it was much easier to grip and hold. Most importantly, the steering motion of the wheels from dead-centre position to full lock was now spread out over several revolutions of the steering column. This made steering much more precise overnight and permitted accordingly higher driving speeds.

When Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft additionally tilted the steering column significantly more than ever before in the first Mercedes in 1900, the ‘volant’, as the steering wheel was called in the early years of the automobile days, once and for all became arguably the most important link between the driver and that vehicle that is generally considered the first modern automobile. This made controlling the car very simple and resulted in the early Mercedes models even officially being called “Simplex” – taken from the Latin word for “simple”.

Wilhelm Maybach at the steering lever of the Daimler Wire-Wheel Car, 1889.
Early principle sketch: hydraulic power steering system from Mercedes-Benz.

Steering becomes more precise and lighter.

Faster, stronger, larger: the development of the car progressed rapidly in the 20th century. And as the power grew, so did the steering wheel to continue to precisely transmit the steering forces. Be it in the huge Mercedes-Benz compressor cars that dominated Europe’s racetracks in the late 1920s or in the heavy-duty trucks bearing the three-pointed star on the long bonnet. Large steering wheels provided the necessary high leverage effect in theses vehicles.  Strong power – strong steering forces? This changed in 1958, when the Mercedes-Benz 300 flagship car was offered with power steering for the first time. The mighty saloon could now be steered almost as light as a feather. That thrilled not only the professional chauffeurs of statesmen and corporate bosses, but all other drivers as well. And consequently this assistance system gradually made its way into all vehicles from Mercedes-Benz.

Gallery.

Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive.

The hydraulic power steering system was a first step to provide active assistance to the driver for safe steering and driving. Numerous electronic accident-avoiding assistance systems were added over the years. Mercedes-Benz brings together all components and systems under the term ‘Intelligent Drive’. The brand rigorously pursues its vision of accident-free driving.

The step to autonomous driving is therefore only logical. The next technology leap will follow on the basis of existing systems and with the help of extensive additional development work. The first automation steps have already been taken. For example, drivers can leave the steering to the Park Assist system without worries. In the new E-Class, the Remote Parking Pilot even steers the car into a free space by remote control.

Self-steering car: Mercedes-Benz Remote Parking Pilot in the E-Class.

If the driver wants, the car can take the wheel for parking – and in more and more other driving situations as well. It assists the driver with a host of other accident-avoiding systems.

These solutions pave the way for future autonomous driving: the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research vehicle shows how it's done.