Evolution of the wheel

May 06, 2020 //By Christoph Hammerschmidt
Evolution at the wheel
From a simple tiller to today’s capacitive control center: Mercedes-Benz tells 120 years of steering wheel evolution.

With its new E-Class sedan in the coming summer, Mercedes-Benz is launching a new, digitalized generation of steering wheels: the capacitive steering wheel. Its rim contains a two-zone sensor mat that detects whether the driver's hands are gripping the steering wheel. The touch control buttons placed in the spokes also work with digital signals. The first step towards the modern Mercedes-Benz steering wheel was taken by the then Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft more than 120 years ago: with the change from the simple steering crank or steering rod to the significantly more functional steering wheel. This led to the development of today's high-tech command center, which enables the driver to steer precisely and at the same time operate numerous comfort and assistance systems comfortably and safely.

Developers and designers work hand in hand - and strive for every detail. For example, every millimeter of an electronic circuit board determines how elegantly the surface can be designed. The focus of development is on the appearance and, above all, the feel of the steering wheel. "Steering wheel design is a world of its own and a very special challenge that is often underestimated," says Hans-Peter Wunderlich, Creative Director Interior Design at Mercedes-Benz.

The world's first automobile, the patent motor car by Carl Benz from 1886, did not yet have what we consider indispensable in cars today: The steering wheel. The vehicle was equipped with only a simple steering lever. At that time, carriages were also more used to pulling the right or left rein to direct the horses in the desired direction.


A simple crank instead of a steering wheel: The Patent-Motorwagen from 1886

The French engineer Alfred Vacheron is considered the inventor of the steering wheel. For the world's first automobile race, the race from Paris to Rouen in July 1894, he had installed a steering wheel instead of the usual steering lever in his Panhard & Levassor, which was powered by a Daimler engine. He achieved his goal - better control - because the steering movement of the front wheels could be distributed over several turns of the steering column from a neutral central position until it stopped. This enabled more precise steering and thus higher driving speeds. Although the Frenchman was only in 11th place - his "volant" prevailed.


Mercedes Simplex with inclined steering column and engine function control

In 1900, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft also equipped its Phoenix racing car with a steering wheel. The steering column was also tilted, which made it easier to operate. Nevertheless, every steering movement required a great deal of effort. In the Mercedes Simplex models introduced in 1902, there were additional levers on the steering wheel which had to be used to regulate essential engine functions such as ignition timing and mixture.


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