- with self-driving cars at least on the distant horizon, automakers are thinking of ways to change the steering wheel. bmw's latest idea is to turn it into a steering handle that you can manipulate with one hand.
- a wide crossbar with two l-shaped handles on either end is the basic shape of bmw's idea here, and the outside handles can rotate independently of how the center bar has been turned.
- the whole idea here is to create a smaller steering wheel, one that would allow riders in an autonomous car the ability to read a newspaper or check emails. yay?
we'll let you make your own "reinvent the wheel" jokes. the subject is a newly discovered patent filing from bmw describing a "steering handle"—basically, a strange little yoke that feels like the next worst thing to a standard wheel.
bmw envisages this new wheel/handle/yoke as something that would be used in an "at least partially autonomously driving double-track motor vehicle." that's patentspeak for something like a level 3 or higher autonomous car, where a standard steering wheel would take up too much space when the car is in autonomous mode.
bmw knows we will all want to put our books and tablets in that space where the steering wheel is now, and this is one partial solution. specifically, bmw said in the filing that a handle like this means "as much free space as possible is to be provided for the driver . . . with the result that he/she can read a newspaper, for example, or can manage emails, for example, by means of a tablet or the like with the aid of the display unit."
as the pictures show, the overall design of the steering handle is a thick central section with a free-rotating grip on either side. bmw said in its filing that when the car is being driven autonomously, the central section of the steering handle would stay in a standard, horizontal position, "even when driving around bends."
it's the way that the handle would be used by the human driver, though, that's most interesting. we've seen other unusual yoke designs in cars recently—by tesla, most famously—but bmw's is different because of the exterior grips that can be moved clockwise in the steering wheel's arc while your hand doesn't change its vertical axis. so, as you move your left hand from the 9 o'clock to 12 o'clock position, it can stay with the thumb pointed upward, for example.
bmw acknowledges that a person could steer a car that's equipped with a handle like this single-handedly, and that even if some parts of the handle were folded in, it could still be used to maneuver the vehicle. overall, despite how strange the grips make this yoke, the main idea here is to shrink down the steering control mechanism, which bmw has unquestionably done.
the patent was first reported by carbuzz, which also notes that the patent has been filed in china and germany, showing that bmw is serious about claiming this kind of design, even if simply filing a patent doesn't in any way guarantee that the subject of the patent will ever be produced.