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Patents Show BMW Reinventing the Wheel. The Steering Wheel

The race for autonomous driving is on, and no company wants to be caught with its pants down when the legislation will finally give the green light for mass user adoption.
BMW "Steering handle" 88 photos
We see how Tesla is trying to push as many new features as possible without waiting for any approval from the authorities, and that's partly why its Autopilot suite gets the most press. However, don't be surprised if other companies are way more advanced in the field than they may seem, the only difference being they do most of their stuff behind closed doors.

We rode in a self-driving car ten years ago, and it was impressive. Even though it was all happening on a closed testing circuit, the car wasn't following a preset course as proved by the information scrolling on the large display mounted on the dashboard. As it happened, the car in question was a BMW 3 Series Touring, but the technology used for the self-driving bits was developed by Bosch.

BMW has been pretty discreet about its autonomous driving ambitions, and current Bavarian vehicles come with Level 2 autonomy features at best (active cruise control, collision avoidance, lane-keeping assistance, automatic parking). However, a recent patent filing shows the company is at least thinking about much more advanced stuff than that.

CarAdvice has found that BMW applied for a patent that describes a new way of controlling "partially autonomous two-lane motor vehicles." The device looks like your classic airplane yoke in shape (two joysticks on each side of a horizontal bar pivoting around its center) but has special controls (buttons as well as seemingly rotary dials) on the top end of either handle.

The steering wheel replacement is described as a "steering handle" (accurate, if not overly imaginative) in the official documents. The cool thing about it is it can be stowed away when the driver wants to lose that quality and become just a regular passenger like everyone else in the vehicle.

That suggests the "steering handle" would be used on vehicles capable of full autonomy while also subtly hinting at the fact that owners will continue to want to drive their BMWs even when they won't necessarily have to. You know, because Bimmers are so enjoyable to drive.

As we all know, companies file for hundreds of patents, some for things they might use years from now, some for things nobody will ever think about again. This doesn't mean BMW is any closer to Level 5 autonomy nor does it confirm we'll ever see the "steering handle" in any production BMW vehicle the future might hold for us. What it does establish, though, is that BMW is indeed invested in the development of autonomous technology, so might see more from the Bavarians in the years to come.


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