ZF’s Lifetec division claims a new innovation on positioning of the driver airbag on the steering wheel opens up options for design and new materials for the steering wheel – a vital HMI area of the car.

Instead of siting the driver airbag in the centre of the steering wheel – as is the conventional approach – the ZF concept’s driver airbag deploys from the top side of the steering wheel through the upper steering wheel rim towards the driver. ZF says the new installation position of the airbag allows the horizontal spoke, including the hub, to have a ‘seamless, smartphone-like design’.

ZF points out that the steering wheel has become the command centre for entertainment and assistance functions in modern cars. It has designed a new generation of steering wheel to expand the design possibilities of future-oriented interior concepts.

Force sensitive controls for the vehicle’s entertainment and assistance functions are integrated behind a continuous surface in the concept. This design blends seamlessly into the digitally designed dashboards of modern vehicle interiors, according to ZF. “With this new concept, we are enabling design freedom for steering wheels without compromising safety,” said Harald Lutz, Head of Development at ZF Lifetec.

‘Seamless design’ trend

ZF says the trend towards seamless design, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, can also be found in modern vehicle interiors. Manufacturers are increasingly eliminating joints and gaps in the interior, it says. This is also reflected in innovative lighting options and displays, which are integrated throughout the vehicle interior. This development will also continue with future steering wheels, ZF maintains.

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Moreover, ZF says seamless design variants with greater integration of HMI functions and new surfaces will decisively influence the appearance and functionality of tomorrow’s steering wheel.

The function determines the design

The seamless design not only opens many possibilities for the use of new materials and shapes, but also in terms of function. On-demand functions (freely assignable fields), touch displays, or a central screen are now conceivable. However, as the steering wheel is also a safety-relevant component in the vehicle, user-friendliness is paramount. Hybrid solutions can therefore also be implemented with this concept, it is claimed. These include, for example, the combination of an alternatively rotary switch with a force-sensitive and tactile surface also integrated in the steering wheel as an anchor point, thus enabling the driver to operate the system safely.

These functions can also be combined with hands-on detection which is a component of current and future steering wheels. A capacitive sensor under the leather surface recognizes whether the driver is merely touching or safely gripping the wheel.

This technology is a further module for safe vehicle control, according to ZF Lifetec.