News Car Tech

ZF Figures Out How To Fit a Screen and Airbag on Your Steering Wheel

Mega-supplier ZF has figured out a redesigned airbag that doesn't come through the center of the steering wheel.

I get the sense engineers are like my dad. Always fixing things that aren’t broken. Okay, maybe not exactly like my dad because, in his case, some things become broken. (He will laugh at this because it’s true.) This time, the tech wizards at mega-supplier ZF Group have found a way to reinvent the steering wheel—specifically, they’ve developed an airbag that can deploy from the top of the wheel’s center instead of through the front, freeing up that real estate for, what else, screens. Hey, at least it’s safer than rhinestones.

To be fair, it’s not just about screens. ZF says the new airbag position will also allow for greater design variation and control interfaces, sharing a number of concepts at the company’s first-ever Technology Day. Hardly a fly-by-night outfit, ZF’s passive safety systems comprise 20 percent of the global market share. This includes steering wheel, airbag, and seat belt technologies. So there’s a non-zero chance of something that looks like one of these ending up in a production car one day.

In what world do we need a screen on a steering wheel, especially when in-car displays have grown from 4-inch TFTs to 33-inch behemoths in the front, like in the Cadillac Lyriq, and 31.3 inches in the rear, like in the BMW i7 and 7 Series? According to ZF, the focus is safety and not entertainment—any sort of screen would be to “promote safety and clear communication between the vehicle and the human driver.”

The new display could add or update illuminated warnings, for example. How many of you have ignored or not noticed blind-spot monitoring lights on the outside mirrors? Some vehicles moved the warning light to the vehicle interior on the A-pillar. The Infiniti Q50 loaner I’m currently driving has it positioned here. Even then, it’s easy to miss. With ZF’s steering wheel, another illumination-based notification can be added for BSM, pre-collision warnings, and anything you might traditionally see with the IP. The display can be a static monitor or a touchscreen as well. 

In addition to lights, you’ve got room for more sensors. With what ZF calls Hands On/Off Detection (HOD), the extra sensors could provide added support in vehicles equipped with semi-autonomous driving systems. Also, when combined with a steer-by-wire system, there is more flexibility in the steering wheels’ overall design and function. One such example is the squircle (no, not a Pokémon). The smaller diameter of a squared-circle wheel increases comfort while driving.

I personally don’t want more screens. I just want to get in my car and drive. The fewer things “warning” me, the better. But also can see how the new tech proposed by ZF can work in providing drivers with vehicle information they actually want and need. It’s cool to see different steering wheel styles, too, that is something other than a yoke.