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ZF’s steering wheel concept offers enhanced driver interaction functions (Photo: ZF)

In the long term, autonomous vehicles may not need steering wheels, but that vision is likely to be decades out. In the meantime, steering wheels will remain, though their functionality is set to be enhanced.

ZF has developed a concept steering wheel that integrates gesture controls, provides enhanced hands-on detection and offers the kind of driver interaction that will be needed for Level 3 automated driving.

Level 3 automation goes one step beyond the advanced driver assistance technologies now showing up in production cars. It allows for a range of autonomous functions, but requires a human driver to be ready to take over at any time.

The German automotive supplier said that, among other things, its concept features capacitive touch for operating the horn and a driver airbag system that can be positioned around the screen interface.

The vehicle and driver interface will be a “critical enabler” in the auto industry’s efforts to increase road safety and reduce accidents, said Juergen Krebs, ZF’s vice president of engineering for steering wheel systems and driver airbags. “As new automated functions become more commonplace, advanced technologies employed in the steering wheel are important and can help improve driver safety and awareness of the current vehicle control mode,” he said in a statement.

Krebs also pointed to a potentially big hurdle in the progress toward autonomous driving: the need for drivers to quickly retake control of the vehicle if and when needed. Studies show that the longer a driver is inactive, the longer the time he will need to be in full control of the car again.

Said Krebs: “As we prepare for Level 3 automated functions the hand-over of control between vehicle and driver using highly accurate feedback will be critical.”