By on October 17, 2013

The end of the steering wheel

Be afraid. Be very afraid. If the aspirations of one automotive supplier come to pass, your child’s first car will not have a steering wheel come 2025, rendering her or him nothing more than a mere passenger inside a tiny commuter pod.

In this frightening article from The Detroit News, Han Hendricks (no relation to Christina Hendricks), vice president of advanced product development for the Milwaukee, Wis.-based supplier Johnson Controls in their automotive electronics and interiors wing suggests that as auto manufacturers race to develop, and then improve upon, autonomous cars, the driver will figure less and less into the overall scheme of things (something that has been evolving as of late, with parking and lane-keeping technologies as two examples), leading to the deletion of the steering wheel around 2025. To quote:

After 2025, the steering wheel will play a less dominant role in the interior. With fully autonomous vehicles, you don’t have to be forward looking as a driver, you don’t need to have an instrument panel. Then you can really just think of a car as a box that you enter.

All just as well, since by then everything your child will think, do or say will be in the pill they took that day anyway.

To hammer the point home, Hendricks goes on to mention that Johnson Controls is planning to speak with automakers in China, Europe and North America in November about this brave new world, as well as the usual industry experts and visionaries who deal in such things as the transition from driver autonomy to robot car autonomy, all in order to refine their dream of the automated superhighway of tomorrow.

If you’re a driver, however, don’t expect Hendricks to ask you whether or not this is desirable:

It’ll help our vision become more robust. It’s not as if we’re going to go out and ask consumers, because people just don’t think about it.

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46 Comments on “Automotive supplier prognosticator predicts demise of the steering wheel by 2025...”


  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Excellent! Self-drivers can’t come soon enough. I just want to tell one where to go and then crawl in the back with my nicey-blanket. Zzzzzzzz

    And if Johnson Controls is on this, it’s no longer in the realm of Popular Mechanics futurama.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Yeah, right. This is a totally unrealistic concept, unless the entire road system is wired for guidance and such, including one’s driveway and garage.

    Not now, nor in a hundred years. Perhaps only on certain freeways, but never on all streets. You still need a steering wheel – or at least a tiller bar!

    However, I’d like to place my order for my promised-over-50-years-ago flying car!

    Jetsons rule!

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Why would the road system need to be wired?

      Are you not aware that the next generation of GPS satellites is currently being placed in orbit, with number 4 launched in June of this year?

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Unless I’m seriously mistaken, or ignorant of the technology, GPS still has a margin of error of several feet, which is unacceptable in traffic.

        Now, if that gets straightened out, or if it already has been, then OK, but I still want to drive most times. On a long drive, like on my commute, I’d love to kick back and relax, at least on the highway!

        • 0 avatar
          jmo

          “GPS still has a margin of error of several feet, which is unacceptable in traffic.”

          That is the current generation.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPS_Block_IIIA

        • 0 avatar
          stryker1

          There’s nothing saying you have to rely on a single technology to perform all of your location awareness/environment modelling. You could use GPS for your over-all position, lasers to detect nearby obstacles/cars, a few cameras running the latest machine vision algorithms. Add Kalman filtering to taste.

          Sounds doable by 2025. Cheap? Maybe, maybe not. But doable.

          • 0 avatar
            mcs

            >> Sounds doable by 2025. Cheap? Maybe, maybe not. But doable.

            Maybe, but it’s really not as easy as most people think. I also think that the technology needed won’t be sequestered in a car and will come from robotic personal assistants that will acquire the ability to drive. Why drive to the store in an automated car to buy beer when you can send a robot to do it for you? If it can navigate down the highway, it sure as hell can find the cooler at the back of the 7-11.

            We still need good intuitive ai to avoid collisions. A potential collision on a land vehicle might not be detected by sensors until it’s to late to stop. Think of an experienced drivers ability to anticipate problems. A classic example is a ball rolling out from between cars when an experienced driver anticipates that someone not immediately visible could be chasing the ball. Another situation is roadway debris. A different action is required for a styrofoam cup or plastic bag vs. a metal plate. Do you want a full panic stop in the fast lane if the system thinks it’s going to hit a Dunkin Donuts cup thrown out the window by some idiot? These systems are further out than most people think.

          • 0 avatar
            jmo

            “Think of an experienced drivers ability to anticipate problems.”

            Yeh, when you find one, you let me know.

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            Google is doing it NOW. All over the country. Right now, the technology is not affordable. But neither were full-fledged computers in the shape of a portable telephone less than 10 years ago…

            An S-class is about a millimeter from being fully autonomous NOW, between active cruise and lane guidance – you could probably nod off behind the wheel while crossing the mid west and not even notice.

            I agree that the steering wheel is going no-where, but I bet high-end cars are self-driving at least on Interstates within 10-20 years.

          • 0 avatar
            mcs

            >> Google is doing it NOW. All over the country.

            Not really. Under a narrow band of ideal conditions it works, but in reality they aren’t even close to something that would viable for production. Watch one of their vehicles encounter a flooded underpass. It would never detect that kind of hazard. It would appear perfectly normal to the sensors they’re using now. I’ve co-developed and deployed aviation ground collision avoidance systems, so I’ve actually dealt with this stuff.

          • 0 avatar
            wumpus

            >>“Think of an experienced drivers ability to anticipate problems.”

            >>Yeh, when you find one, you let me know.

            In the DC area, you can anticipate all you want on I270, I495, and I95 (and others). You aren’t going to have anywhere to go if somebody does something stupid (and there was a point when *every* *time* I was on I270 I saw somebody due something outrageously stupid (but not immediately fatal).

            One other thing to think about is that instead of stupid HOV lanes, you could have automated lanes that drive in a peleton (drafting) formation. This would unclog the lanes, wildly improve fuel economy (especially if the cars are designed for it: prius economy is pretty directly tied to speed), and you would still have your car when you got where you were going. Considering the costs of new roads, automating a traffic lane or two seems pretty likely.

  • avatar
    ash78

    “Hey, hon, put your hands on the wheel. Are you steering with your knee?”

    “Nope. Johnson Controls.”

    /been waiting a couple decades to use their company name like that

  • avatar
    npaladin2000

    A car for people who care even less about driving? I can think of a manufacturer or two that will collaborate with Johnson on that. ;)

    • 0 avatar
      FuzzyPlushroom

      BMW? ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      For me, the issue is about regulating and rendering harmless all the speeders, tailgaters, texters, lane-darters, senile, angry, stoned, drunk and otherwise dangerous drivers out there.

      Of course it won’t come for decades, but it’s a worthy goal. As long as vehicles remain private in this scheme, that is.

      • 0 avatar
        npaladin2000

        That’s easy. If people don’t know how to drive, don’t give them a ^#&% license.

        • 0 avatar
          Kenmore

          What an elegant solution!

          Because nobody ever drives without a valid license. And we all remain the same person, physically and mentally, that we were when we first passed the driving test.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            1/3 of drivers should not have a licence. That is a statistically proven fact.
            For many people, driving is the most complex and dangerous task they will ever perform. Can you name any profession that involves complexity and safety that does not have ongoing competency or skill re-evaluations?
            Initial driver licencing requirements should be made much more thorough and strict along with re-evaluations through one’s driving life.
            Pulling one’s licence for too many infractions is ass backwards because many incompetent drivers don’t get caught until they kill someone.
            Use the droids and advanced electronics for driver evaluations. it would be a step up from the lame testing that goes on now.

  • avatar
    daneli

    A repost, but maybe relevant:
    I had this dream, or maybe it was a nightmare: Technological progress (if you want to call it that) is going to accomplish what moralistic finger-waging can’t. The first step will be the proliferation of autonomous vehicles. The second step will the the development of secure networks to safely and efficiently coordinate these vehicles. When automobile accidents become as rare as plane crashes are now, then it is all over for the driver and car as we know them today. The steering wheel, accelerator and brake will become a tiny joystick with two buttons, tucked away in an emergency pod that doesn’t descend unless something catastrophic happens – like oxygen masks on airplanes. “Cars” – maybe they won’t be called that – will shed size and weight and become dramatically more fuel efficient, because accident survivability will no longer be an issue. If the network can reliably send an autonomous vehicle to my pickup point, then maybe car ownership itself will begin to seem quaint and unnecessary. We’ll buy our rides by the hour, or maybe purchase guaranteed transportation services through a yearly subscription. And when GoogleWheels sends a vehicle to your home for the trip to work, what you get will be customized for the purpose – no need for a multi-ton monstrosity with 12 cup holders when a single seat pod is all that is required. In our dotage, the Best and Brightest will try to explain to our grandchildren what they are missing – how fun and exciting and compelling cars were back then, but these stories won’t be much more interesting than stories about Bessie the Old Gray Mare . “Oh grandpa – I’ve seen pictures of that car you drove. What a death trap!”

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    At least the fog lines and center stripes will be nice and bright all the time for the lane detection software. Then there’s “You are free to move around the cabin”.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    I am still amazed at the deniers. Limited autonomy is available on 2014 models. I suspect the drivers seat with wheel won’t be gone by 2025 though. I believe a couple manufacturers are claiming auto drive by 2020, but I think it’s limited to highway and recorded trips. You will have to drive to work and back to allow the car to check its nav aids, then it will drive you after that.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      In my limited field of vision, I’m seeing it happening on the Interstates and other limited access highways. Once you get off, you take control of the car and proceed on your journey.

      I’d love this system. Get on I-95 at the Ladysmith exit, and not have to touch the car again until the University of Maine exit in Orono, ME. Boy, the amount of reading and work I could get done in those sixteen hours.

      This would be damaging (if not the death) of the short hop airline industry, though.

      • 0 avatar
        Landcrusher

        I agree on the short hops as well. Hopefully, the reduced short hop traffic will make it easier to commute by plane. :)

      • 0 avatar
        wumpus

        If the reaction to 9/11 didn’t kill the shorthop airline industry, nothing will.

        The other question is that it should be far, far easier to make a consumer autopilot than a consumer autodriver (in fact, I’m pretty sure they exist). I’d assume that a short takeoff/landing aircraft could outsell some of the higher-end autos (at least in areas with less regulation than the US). Seeing how much money is in the market for the high end (as opposed to the low end), I’d expect to see more things like the Honda Jet (but not requiring an airport would sell *much* better).

        • 0 avatar
          Landcrusher

          9/11 was a short term scare with a lingering problem. Riding versus driving really changes the math.

          Compare the costs in time, money, and discomfort. Put stuff in car, drive to airport an hour early, move stuff and pax thru process, risk delay, taxi, fly, taxi, wait to deplane, get stuff from plane, get transportation, drive to destination, unload stuff. Or, load stuff, relax in car taking turns watching road, unload stuff.

          Different people have different endurance thresholds for driving. Also, the auto drive car is very likely to have a MUCH smaller engine. Right now, I drive to San Antonio in three hours and Dallas in four. I prefer flying commercial to Dallas over driving. Last year I drove to New Orleans in my Volvo with adaptive cruise and lane departure warning and it was not much worse than driving to Dallas used to be. A self drive car would stop me from considering flying in any of those cases.

          As for light aircraft, I can get a four cylinder accord for less than a top notch auto pilot add on. When Diamond gets their pilot optional system ready, I suspect a 40k plus price tag. Lack of volume kills light aircraft which get most of their advancements on the back of the auto industry tech.

          Vertical take off destroys economy. Short take off would be great, but their are government problems. Every city should have a non federally funded STOL port near downtown, but they don’t. You can’t take fed money or you lose control of everything. Pay for your own and you can regulate noise, open hours, everything. Santa Monica is going crazy over this problem and the result will be no airport.

          Small, well regulated airports will soon become a huge advantage for large cities with the sense to save land for them.

  • avatar

    This heralds the end of everything we love. Then TTAC will either become like Hemmings, or like Hot Mix Asphalt Technology.

    I’m hanging onto my 08 Civic (stick) forever. Like Grace Braeger and her ’57 Chevy. (Unless they get more headroom in the FR-S.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    For a lot of drivers, this may well be a dream come true. But for others, it’s a nightmare. Many of us who are automotive enthusiasts love the feeling of control; having the ability to maneuver in heavy traffic, control the speed to a nicety with our manual transmissions, the horsepower to get out of our own way (or somebody else’s way), to handle a skid properly (especially when the anti-lock brakes THINK you are already stopped). And an autonomous car simply can’t travel on logging trails and other off-road paths to get away from the madding crowd.

    Yes, as a commuter vehicle and even for shopping or long-distance travel such capability an autonomous car can be a huge benefit. For those drivers who ONLY look on a car as “mere transportation” (direct quote from my father 40 years ago) it offers the ability to do your makeup, read a book or whatever these inattentive drivers tend to do while behind the wheel. But for the enthusiast, we want to keep control. We want to take advantage of our car’s sometimes hidden capabilities–to push our car to that ragged edge and bring it back. For us, a car is more than mere transportation, it is a pleasure and simply put, FUN experience–as long as we don’t have to put up with idiots who feel they ‘own’ the road or simply aren’t paying attention to their own driving.

    Save the racing for the track. How about actually building racing ‘parks’, where street racers can do their thing without risking the rest of us? Make it affordable and let them set their own rules–as long as they know THEY are responsible for their own lives and property.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      I’m as much of an auto enthusiast as you will ever find, but I cannot WAIT for this to happen. Because within my lifetime it will likely be limited to Interstates, which are where I would want it anyway. There is nothing at all fun about jumping in my car and driving to NJ from Maine, and I do it a bunch of times a year. But it is not really cost effective to fly and rent. I would LOVE to put the car on autopilot for that 5-6hrs of boring superslab. I’ll save the manual driving for around town and back roads.

      • 0 avatar
        Syke

        Amen. See above comment.

        This would severely damage, if not kill, the short distance airline and rail industries. Why bother flying, going thru the TSAs, the crowds, etc., when you can get into your own carriage and get to your destination with the same amount of concern as flying? And probably less cost.

  • avatar
    Ion

    The wheel will be here for awhile if anything as a redundant control or manual override feature. There’s too many variables when dealing with real life traffic for the autonomous car to predict and react to.

  • avatar
    Marko

    While autonomous technology will certainly continue to improve and become more affordable and widespread, these “commuter pods” – if even available – will be in anything but limited use in limited areas in 2025. They will NOT have replaced every car!

    I keep hearing “these can drive better than the average driver”, yet there are MANY, MANY, MANY variables to account for that we aren’t consciously aware of.

    Also, show me an autonomous car actually driving itself in snow, construction sites, tornadoes, etc. In fact, show me ANY one testing in a humid subtropical or humid continental climate (i.e. NOT a perfectly paved road in the desert or Southern California). I can see autonomous features locking themselves out if conditions do not permit, hence the continued need for a steering wheel.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Who needs autonomous cars? Just write an app for Google Glass that interpolates the direction of your gaze to inputs for the electric steering.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    We are already seeing rear end collision avoidance systems lane wandering systems, lane change sytems and auto-park systems being built into vehicles.

    My hunch of what the future will bring is opposite to the “it will be great on the freeway” prognosticators.

    I suspect that we will be “allowed” to drive and when we f*ck-up (or ther sytem thinks we have f*cked up), the nannies will take over for us. That is the way the current technology already works.

    For the offroaders out there – nope, we wouldn’t want to hurt the environment by wandering off of anything other than a designated sensor impregnated road.

    • 0 avatar
      Landcrusher

      First, no sensors needed

      Second, the wackos don’t need any new tech as an excuse to ban off road driving.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        Unfortunately the eco-freaks have figured out where I live. My all time favorite loggers versus tree hugger confrontation was maybe 20 years ago. They had chained themselves to trees and blockaded access roads etcetera.
        A representative from the forest resource company pointed out to them that since they were impeding logging, the company would take the time to upgrade local roads and bridges. They gave them ample notice to pull out or be stranded. The tree huggers stayed put and the company removed several log bridges all in the name of road upgrades.
        It wasn’t long before they were begging for assistance from all of those greenhouse gas emitting tree destroying machines and motor vehicles.
        They want to save the forest but don’t know f-ck all about surviving in it. LOL

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Fat chance.

    1. That’s only 12 years away. We should be driving airborne atomic cars by now, too.

    2. It’s un-American. I mean no offense to our European friends, but it’s more likely to happen in Europe than the US. Just look at the relative popularity of mass transportation in Europe vs the US, and you’ll see how well autonomous driving will be embraced in the US.

  • avatar
    Tosh

    But I bet we’ll still have air-filled rubber balloon tires and four-way stop signs across the land. Such an underwhelming future we live in…

  • avatar
    Garak

    I always wonder how the self-driving systems will handle snow and ice. When your car gets stuck halfway up a hill, you need to improvise and usually break a couple of traffic laws to get moving. Maybe they’re counting on climate change?

    I’d also like to know how the cars are going to react to changing road conditions: are they going to travel at a “safe speed” (read: extremely slow) all the time, or will they be smart enough to adapt? I hope we get answers before cars start driving around without a steering wheel.

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      I guess they are counting on climate change, or more precisely, desertification. See my above post; I have never, ever seen one of these systems being tested in any kind of precipitation, or flooded roads, or near snowbanks, or autumn leaves, etc…

  • avatar
    Egroeg1000

    You’ve already taken away my 3rd pedal (on most modern cars). Is that not enough?
    Well, you may pry my steering wheel from my cold, dead hands!

    Apparently, I feel strongly on this topic. ..


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