Volvo recently applied for a patent for a rather fascinating technology - a steering wheel that can shift from the left to the right side of a vehicle and back. The Swedish automaker used by-wire technology to develop a system that allows users to slide the steering wheel, instrument cluster and several switches from one side of the cabin to the other.
This invention changes the very concept of what exactly is the driver's seat.
Published in September 2020, the patent describes a "vehicle having multiple driving positions" using a steering wheel mounted on a rail that extends across the width of the cabin. This means that the driver can sit on the left side of the car, as in most countries, or on the right side, as in Australia, England and Japan, among others. Those who want to could even choose to sit in the middle.
Volvo added that a sliding steering wheel could also mean users can enjoy more space when traveling in a car with semi-autonomous driving features. For example, if you're stuck in traffic, you could get off the wheel and read a book while the navigation is done by itself.
Steer-by-wire technology is not actually new. Infiniti, Nissan's luxury division, has been using it for several years with its Q50 sedan. The term "steer-by-wire" is used to describe the system for controlling the steering.
In order for this technology to work, all vehicle controls would have to be replaced with electrically controlled (by-wire) components. Brake-by-wire technology is itself gradually gaining acceptance in the automotive industry, while electronic acceleration is already commonplace. The digital dashboard and the various pedals could simply slide along with the steering wheel.
What about pedals, you ask? Volvo says they could be replaced with pressure-sensitive bearings, hydraulic or pneumatic sensors or some other system. In all cases, they would be installed in both front foot wells, and the system would automatically activate the ones on the side where the steering wheel is placed.
This is nowhere near reality at the moment and sounds outlandishly futuristic, but it could happen sooner than we think. And when it does, we may have to stop referring to our personal transportation machines as cars and start taking them for computers on wheels. We’re a good part of the way there already.
From a strictly commercial point of view, the idea of designing a car that can be driven from both left and right has long been an appealing one for automakers, especially when it comes to producing right-hand-drive models in right-hand-drive markets. Back in the day, Mini wisely placed its main dial in the center to reduce production costs. BMW took up the formula with the modern version of the model.