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Mercedes-Benz just reinvented the wheel: why your circular steering wheel won't be 'round for long


Mercedes-Benz has unveiled a new driver's airbag design as part of its vision for the future of vehicle safety, and with it comes a change that might take some time to come to grips with.

Preparing for a future in which humans can hand over the driving duties to an autonomous vehicle, Benz has shifted the airbag from the centre of the steering wheel to the dash above it. The idea being that, if a driver wants more space when the car is in control, the steering wheel can retract into the dash.

But while that would normally mean the wheel would take the airbag with it, the new dash location means the driver is still protected in an accident. A side-effect, though, is the need to redesign to the steering wheel, from the  traditional circular shape to a new oblong design that looks similar to the one that appears in the brand's F1 cars - only without all the buttons.

Part of the plan is the brand's push to introduce by-wire steering across its range, which reduces the amount of lock-to-lock turns requires, with Benz saying its new wheel wouldn't need to turn past its vertical axis. The wheel and airbag design was debuted in the Mercedes-Benz ESF safety concept, but the plan is to introduce the new steering wheel shape across the rest of the range. 

"(With this design) we do not need to grab-over to get all the angle we need. With steer-by-wire we are more flexible, and we only expect to have minimal movement," says Mercedes' Eric Gartner.

"We also realised with this shape is the you get much better visibility of the displays. The whole instruments are visible, nothing is covered by the rim of the steering wheel. And it creates more comfort for your knees.

"All those reasons together told us that this is the right way to go for future concepts. It might not come next year, but this is something we are working on in integrated teams all over the company, how we can realise it."

What do you think of the new steering wheel design? Tell us in the comments below.