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The Evolution of the Steering Wheel: From Carriages to Touchscreens

BY: Adam Karner
A woman driving a car holding the steering wheel

Over the centuries, the technology utilized within vehicles has changed drastically. From humble beginnings to advanced features, every aspect of vehicles on the road today fails to be reminiscent of their origins.

One feature in particular, the steering wheel, has seen more changes than many other parts of the car. By looking at the evolution of the steering wheel over the years, any driver can truly understand just how far vehicles have come.

The Early Years: Steering Wheels in Horse-Drawn Carriages

Before the modern vehicle was conceptualized, horse-drawn carriages were the preferred way to travel long distances. In those days, concepts such as power steering and cruise control weren’t even in the equation. Horse-drawn carriages utilized anywhere from two to four horses on average, which pulled a carriage on wheels with passengers inside. A driver controlled the wagon by using reins attached to the horses.

While there may not have been marginally more advanced technology, such as a tiller, to control the direction of the front wheels, the basic concept remained the same. By directing the horses to the right or the left, the front wheels on the carriage would turn, and the rear wheels would follow.

Innovation and Adaptation in Early Automobiles

After the tiller went out of style, the first steering wheels were introduced in the 1900s. Unfortunately for drivers, power steering had not yet been invented, which meant turning the steering wheel was limited due to the effort required. This made driving a challenging task, which resulted in few automobile sales with vehicles equipped with this type of steering wheel.

The style of the wheel itself was either a three or four-spoke steering wheel attached to a lengthy column. This design allowed the driver to grip the wheel ergonomically and effectively to steer the vehicle. In the entire history of the steering wheel, this design didn’t last as long as the aesthetics and function of the wheel began to change quickly.

The Era of Design: Aesthetic and Functional Enhancements

The 1900s were truly the era of aesthetic and functional improvements for the steering wheel, as too many drivers had issues controlling their vehicles. Powerhouse companies such as Cadillac, Lincoln, and Chrysler began to introduce power steering technology. This technology uses intermediate electronic or hydraulic devices to reduce the effort required from a driver when turning the wheel.

All the hydraulic fluid gets pressurized by a pump powered by the engine. This fluid is then converted to hydraulic pressure, which is applied to the vehicle’s steering column to turn the wheels. The harder you turn your wheel, the more hydraulic fluid rushes into the system to provide power. In recent years, electric power steering has become more popular even though it was actually invented before hydraulic steering.

Rather than using hydraulic fluid to create the power necessary to turn the wheels, your vehicle draws power from the electric system via a motor attached to the column. The benefit of electric steering is that it provides consistent power across a myriad of conditions. Over the 1900s, the steering wheel also featured a number of aesthetic and functional changes, such as the introduction of the horn. Drivers realized they needed a way to alert other drivers on the road, which resulted in this feature being added to wheels in the mid-1900s.

Around this same time, the design for steering wheels started to shift away from the traditional spoke style and became more sporty and sleek.

Safety First: The Introduction of Airbags

While airbags have been required in all vehicles since the 1990s, they weren’t actually invented during that decade. The earliest iteration of airbags being used in vehicle steering wheels stems back to the 1950s when the first patents for the idea were issued. The biggest hurdle the inventors faced was developing a sensor that could determine when a car accident was occurring.

It wasn’t until around 1970 when the sensors were perfected, and manufacturers began to produce vehicles with steering wheel airbags included. However, customers didn’t enjoy having airbags due to the extra cost to add them in, so sales dwindled for vehicles with this technology included. In the 1980s, customer concerns regarding vehicle safety culminated in airbags no longer being an optional vehicle add-on.

Airbags work in steering wheels by taking advantage of an accelerometer, which measures the vehicle’s speed. If there is a sudden enough decrease in speed, an electric current is passed through a heating element, which causes the airbag to inflate suddenly. The plastic cover of the steering wheel is then blown off, and the driver can, ideally, safely collide with the airbag.

Technological Integration: Steering Wheels in the Digital Age

In the last two decades or so, the technology included in steering wheels has drastically evolved. Features such as being able to pick up calls at the click of a button and set cruise control, and even the wheel design itself, have revolutionized steering wheels. These types of steering wheels are called “multi-functioned steering wheels.”

Each of these buttons is linked to different pieces of technology in the vehicle. For example, the dashboard of your vehicle, along with what it shows to you, might be adjusted by clicking certain buttons on the steering wheel. Alternatively, when you set cruise control with your wheel, you send a signal to the sensors at the front of your vehicle and to the onboard computer system that helps retain your speed.

The Future of Control: Autonomous Vehicles and Beyond

The modern-day and age is a unique time to be behind the wheel of a vehicle due to advances in technology that are rapidly occurring. In particular, artificial intelligence and its role in self-driving vehicles has been at the forefront of many drivers’ minds. Take Tesla, for example, with their self-driving modes on select vehicle models. There are two auto-pilot options to choose from: traffic-aware cruise control and autosteer.

The former of the two simply takes cruise control and expands on its capabilities by allowing the car to automatically adjust its speed to match the traffic around it. On the other hand, Autosteer moves the steering wheel remotely so that the vehicle stays within its lane and adjusts speed automatically. There are even additional features, such as enhanced autopilot, which suggests lane changes and automatically engages features such as the turn signal.

At its core, the entire function of a steering wheel is to allow a driver to move their motor car down the road. However, in a world where artificial intelligence controls cars by itself, there will be no purpose for ergonomics, wheel design, wheel technology, and more. As additional vehicles begin to integrate similar technology over time to Tesla, the steering wheel will undoubtedly become obsolete.

Protecting Your Investment: The Role of Extended Warranties

As the technology within vehicles continues to advance, you will be able to enjoy a more seamless driving experience regardless of whether you drive a Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Chevrolet, or some other brand. The downside to having more technology within your vehicle is those inevitable mechanical breakdowns that may result in expensive repair costs.

One effective way to prevent this cost from being too much to bear is to invest in an extended warranty contract. Many people often confuse auto insurance with extended warranty despite being quite different. While auto insurance offers coverage for repairs resulting from car accidents, alternative accidents, and other similar situations, it doesn’t offer coverage and protection against standard wear and tear.

On the other hand, extended warranty contracts offer protection against regular mechanical breakdowns. These contracts often range in the protection level they offer by specifying specific components or parts such as power steering systems. One common misconception people make is that they believe a factory warranty lasts the entire lifetime of a vehicle. While some manufacturers may offer this, the factory warranty typically expires, meaning your vehicle will be unprotected.

Therefore, to ensure you are financially protected in the event of a mechanical breakdown, especially with the current cost of vehicles and the parts within them, consider adding an extended warranty plan to your vehicle. There are plans structured for a person’s first car, older car, luxury car from accredited automakers, and standard plans as well.

How Endurance can benefit your vehicle

As touched on above, extended warranties can save you both time and money when covered mechanical breakdowns occur. However, there is no universal extended warranty contract, meaning you, as a driver, need to determine which package is best for your vehicle. Endurance Auto Warranty offers customizable vehicle service contracts, each offering varying levels of protection for your vehicle.

The Secure Plus package offered by Endurance provides affordable protection ideal for older vehicles, whereas the Supreme plan offers near bumper-to-bumper coverage. For those seeking protection more in the middle, the Superior plan provides coverage for the parts most commonly break down. Regardless of your choice of coverage plan, each offering comes with Elite Benefits that offer bonus perks such as 24/7 roadside assistance, up to $1,000 in total loss protection, reimbursements for up to four tires per year due to road hazards, and more.

To get your FREE quote, call our dedicated customer service team at (800) 253-8203 or shop online to see your price immediately.

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