ZF Lifetec's steering wheel hides an airbag in the top of wheel rim

Around 2016, when truly self driving autonomous cars were a couple of years away and every auto show featured a concept vehicle designed more for lounging in than driving, screens in conceptual steering wheels were a common sight. We still see them, of course, but not like before. And they are coming, just not as soon as expected. ZF Lifetec, the passive safety division of the ZF conglomerate we know for parts like transmissions and axles, has developed one of the components that will be necessary for this eventuality: An airbag placed in the rim of a steering wheel, not the hub. By emerging from the upper part of the rim (when the wheel is centered), the airbag leaves the hub free for, well, anything.

A small portion of the bag extends into the space between the rim and the hub, centering the device and holding it in place if the bag were to deploy with steering lock applied — an accident with the wheel turned 180 degrees won't have the bag flop into the driver's knees.

Despite ZF Lifetec writing that "Innovative positioning of the driver airbag enables forward-looking design options for the steering wheel and its controls," the sample wheel it prepared as a demonstrator is a conservative take on the possibilities. Instead of a hub and two spokes across the wheel, a single screen puts the same kinds of capacitive controls at its edges that we're used to seeing on traditional wheel spokes, flanking a small display. And note that the center screen also has buttons for the horn, so the learning curve won't be too steep. When the vehicle demands the driver take over, the rim can be dotted with sensors to verify hands gripping the wheel, just like today.

Some will say if there's going to be a screen there, it should be larger. There's no reason it couldn't be; once the center of the wheel becomes a display, designers can make the center of the wheel a large tablet bordered by a rim just far enough away to leave room for fingers to fit between tablet and rim. Or have a look at this concept steering wheel ZF showed six years ago, the kind of fantasy just waiting for this airbag relocation. We've already closed octagonal steering wheels, no reason you couldn't slip an Android tablet inside. As yoke wheels become more common, designers would have freer hand on the upper limit of screen height. We're not arguing for this, just saying that ZF Lifetec's canary has officially introduced itself to the self-driving coal mine.

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