A steering wheel is the primary component of an automobile (cars, trucks, buses etc) used to control the directions of the vehicle.
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It basically used to be a large ring-like object used to steer an automobile with driver input. The center portion of the wheel is connected to the steering system (consisting of rack, pinion, tie rods, axles etc) via a column that translates the movements to the system initiated by the driver.
Automakers take a lot of things into consideration in designing the steering wheel. There is a term called steering effort, which a driver has to apply on the steering wheel in order to turn the vehicle while it’s in motion.
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The steering effort has to overcome the self centering torque which makes the wheels to align back when they are steered . This steering effort used to determine the diameter of the steering wheel. The introduction of power assisted steering has drastically influenced this and reduced the diameter.
The way the steering wheels look, have gone through significant transformations over the period of time. In older automobiles, grip and leverage were considered the key parameters as, in the absence of power assisted steering systems, a giant diameter was needed to crank the wheels in a given direction.
These were usually thin and had two or three spokes connecting the center column to the outer hub of the steering wheel. Some old steering wheels also used to have horn rings which were designed so that driver could keep both the hands on steering wheel and just a stretch of finger or thumb could beep the sound.
Above: Steering wheels through the years, representing change in each decade
With power steering came smaller wheels, but rarely did designers pay much attention to anything beyond the number of spokes and placement of the horn button or rim. The advent of air bags and their commodity placement have a great influence on how steering-wheels are designed.
Today steering wheels have become thick, small & chunky, often flat-bottomed inspired from race cars, and assist in performing several other tasks than to just ‘steer’ the vehicle. The multi-function steering wheels of today can answer a call, it can also change the speed of cruise control and flick through your radio settings.
In order to house the airbags and it’s deploying mechanism, they make the central part of the steering or the spoke to be large and usually 3 or 4 in number so that they get more room. This space also houses the switch for the horn.
Related: Do Airbags Guarantee Your Safety?
Drivers’ hands or fingers must not tangle with the steering wheel. The driver of the vehicle must also be able to quickly retract his/ her hands from the steering wheel in case of front end collision when the front wheels turn suddenly due to the impact. If the steering wheel suddenly turns with driver still holding it tight, there are chances that the hands get crossed, leading to serious injury.
How to hold the steering wheel?
Click here to find out the correct way to hold a steering wheel in a modern car that’s essentially equipped with airbags. Ironically even in the 21st century most of the cars assembled in our country aren’t equipped with airbags, however if you are driving an imported vehicle or a car that’s equipped with the airbags you should need to understand exactly what airbags are designed to do as well as their limitations.
Remember steering wheel is not an ornament, it has a function. Holding your steering wheel the correct way is equally important for your own safety, as well as for the airbags in your vehicle to work properly whenever needed. But even if you drive a vehicle that has no airbags, always try to adapt the correct way of holding the steering wheel.