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Mercedes reinvents (steering) wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.

Mercedes reinvents (steering) wheel
Capacitive controls the main feature of Mercedesí swish new steering wheel, destined for E-Class.
<< earlier Mercedes article     later Mercedes article >>

 


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What's all this about?

You probably don't think much about the steering wheel which you hold in your hands, each and every time you get into your car, but of course it's one of the most important devices on a vehicle, providing a direct interface between the driver and the car's direction of travel. Well, Mercedes is very proud of its latest steering control, which it is claiming is a new generation of wheel. It's called the capacitive steering wheel, it is the first in a 'comprehensively digitalised' generation of wheels due for all Mercedes products going forward and it will make its debut this summer in the refreshed E-Class.

Right, but what's so new about it? As it looks pretty circular and steering-wheel-y to me?

The new wheel's rim contains a two-zone senor mat which detects when the driver's hands are gripping the steering wheel, while the touch-control buttons in the spokes of the wheel now operate with digital signals, reducing the mechanical operating surfaces of the device to the bare minimum. These controls work like a smartphone's touchscreen and can be operated comfortably, even in blazing hot sunshine. Indeed, the size of the wheel is broadly similar to those it replaces and particular attention has been paid to the girth of its rim (steady...), as developers and designers work hand in hand to focus on perfecting each and every detail of the steering wheel.

Hans-Peter Wunderlich, creative director for interior design at Mercedes-Benz and someone who has been designing steering wheels for 20 years, said there would be three styles (Sport, Luxury and Supersport) for the new capacitive wheel and added: "Steering-wheel design is a world of its own and a very special challenge that is often underestimated. Besides the seat, the steering wheel is the only component in the vehicle with which we have intensive physical contact. The fingertips feel little things that we normally don't notice.

"It is the most beautiful steering wheel we have ever built. The proportions of the airbag, spokes and rim are absolutely harmonious. The airbag is not concealed, but staged as a flattering sphere. In the Luxury version, the spokes form a chalice inspired by elegant Callas flowers in a black panel look, in which the sphere floats. In the Supersport version, it is held by two double-decker spokes in black panel design, reminiscent of the wheel wing nuts of sports cars.

"The steering wheel rim is the secret kingmaker of a steering wheel. Its geometric design is a science in itself that cannot be found in any textbook. The wreath must fit snugly in the hand. If it is a millimetre too much, it feels unpleasantly bulging. If it's a millimetre too little, it feels like it's starved. And that impression then clouds the overall feel of the car."

Umm, can we move on from unpleasant bulges and talk about some of the old wheels in the gallery?

Well, these are just designs Mercedes has generated throughout its long and distinguished history. While the current device is a 'high-tech control centre' which allows for steering and the control of various onboard functions in one place, the very first vehicles built by this company (or, indeed, any other car company) had no such things as steering wheels. Both the Patent Motor Car created by Carl Benz in 1886 and the Steel Wheel Car from Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1889 were controlled by steering levers or cranks, designed to mimic the actions of making a horse turn left or right by pulling on reins. The inventor of the wheel (steering, that is, not the Mesopotamians) was a French engineer by the name of Alfred Vacheron, who bolted one into his (Daimler-powered) car for the world's first automobile race, held from Paris to Rouen, in July 1894. Mercedes didn't actually add a wheel to its cars until 1900 but when it did, it angled the steering column to make operation of the wheel easier. Over the years, various features like the horn ring, the column-shift gearlever, cruise control, airbags and multifunction controls have made their way onto the steering wheels of various models of historic Mercedes, so could we be looking at a new chapter with the E-Class' capacitive item...?



Matt Robinson - 6 May 2020

Earlier articles featuring 2020 Mercedes E-Class

2020-03-03: Mercedes freshens up E-Class


2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.

2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.2020 Mercedes Capacitive Steering Wheel. Image by Mercedes AG.









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