Someone Made a Smartphone-Like Steering Wheel Just by Repositioning the Driver Airbag

ZF Lifetec new steering wheel design 7 photos
Photo: ZF Lifetec
ZF Heat BeltZF Heat BeltZF Lifetec airbag2019 ZF crash test2019 ZF crash test2019 ZF crash test
It seems like no matter how much they evolve in some respects, cars will always stay the same in others: there will always be wheels to move over the ground, an engine to keep them going, and a steering wheel to let them move in this or that direction. But even these seemingly perpetual things are subject to change, as a recent announcement for a company called ZF Lifetec seems to show.
The ZF name is a very old one in the automotive industry. Short for Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen, the group is one of the most important parts suppliers for the automotive industry (and not only), making anything from transmissions and suspension systems to seat belts and airbags.

One of the most important side businesses of the company is the one that handles the production of safety systems, both of the active (ESC, park brakes, steering systems) and the passive variety (airbags, seat belts).

It's the passive safety systems unit, the one ZF calls Lifetec, that's of interest to us today, as these guys claim to have literally reinvented the wheel. The steering wheel, that is.

Take a look at the steering wheel in your car. No matter how cheap or expensive the model you drive is, chances are it is equipped with a driver airbag smackdown in the middle of the wheel. This design is shared across the automotive industry because the best way to protect a driver's head in case of an impact is to explode an airbag right in front of their face.

This design has been around since airbags came about more than four decades ago. Back then, and for a long time after that, steering wheels were pretty simple devices, round objects meant to help drivers steer their cars.

ZF Heat Belt
Photo: ZF
With the exception of the yoke thing Tesla tried with not much success a while back, steering wheels have always maintained their shape. But they haven't maintained their role, as aside from steering a car, they now have buttons and switches to control the car's audio, infotainment, displays, on-board computers, and so on.

With technology progressing at a rapid pace, steering wheels are likely to get even more cluttered, and that makes the placement of the airbag right in the hub a pretty complicated matter. Luckily, ZF Lifetec claims it has the solution.

What the company did was as simple as it was innovative. It moved the airbag so that it no longer deploys from the center of the steering wheel, but instead explodes from the top side, going through the upper steering wheel rim and rushing at the driver.

You can see how that's supposed to work in the main photo of this piece. Although at first glance it may seem a bit tricky to get the airbag to go right through the upper rim, the solution is as elegant as it probably is effective.

What this placement does to the steering wheel, more specifically to its horizontal spoke and hub, is to give them a "seamless, smartphone-like design."

You may be wondering what "seamless, smartphone-like design" means. Sadly, the German company provided no photo of the thing so you can get a clear picture of the new wheel, but I'll do my best to explain it with words.

2019 ZF crash test
Photo: Auto Media | YouTube
Moving the airbag deployment location to the top side clears the force-sensitive controls for either the entertainment system or assistance functions to be all located behind a single, continuous interface.

It's an approach that perfectly matches the screen-laden dashboards of modern-day cars and should, at least in theory, lead to whole new ways of designing steering wheels for the cars of the future. Elements that will have fewer visible joints and gaps, will make use of new surfaces, but also of materials that were probably not properly considered until now.

Touchscreens are very common in today's cars, but most of them are to be found on the dashboard. Moving the airbag to the upper side means steering wheels could now accept touchscreens (or simply screens, for that matter) a lot more easily.

ZF says that those willing to keep a more traditional approach could also integrate rotary switches with force-sensitive and tactile surfaces directly into the steering wheel. Alternatively, hands-on detection could also more easily be built into the new designs, including sensors under the leather surface that could determine if the driver is barely touching the wheel, or firmly grasping it.

The Germans don't really go into the details of how advanced they are with research on this thing. They also provide no information on when the new airbag location could be implemented on a large scale in steering wheel production, or what cars will get it first.

Chances are the industry will look at this with quitea bit of excitement, and if all the safety checks pan out successfully, it probably won't be long until we see it in the real world.
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Editor's note: Gallery also shows other ZF products.

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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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