A Brief History of the Steering Wheel for Students in Auto Mechanic School
Steering wheels have certainly come a long way since the late 19th century! While they have been a necessary staple for cars for the entirety of automotive history, they’ve become increasingly modernized and nuanced over time.
Of course, technology has advanced so much over the years that people are now discussing not having them in future vehicles at all. Still, they’ve been such an essential part of a car’s interior build for so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without them.
But how did the steering wheel evolve as much as it has over the years? Here’s a quick deep dive into what online auto mechanic students need to know about the history of the steering wheel.
An Early History of Steering Wheels for Auto Mechanic School Students
The first known steering wheel made its appearance all the way back in 1894. Before this, tillers were typically used to steer vehicles. French engineer Alfred Vacheron added a steering wheel onto his four-horsepower 1893 Panhard in order to help give him an edge in the Paris-Rouen race. Although he only finished 11th, he changed vehicles forever.
Four years later, Panhard would make steering wheels a staple in all of their models, with other automakers also introducing them afterward. That same year, Arthur Krebs would add a steering wheel onto another modified Panhard car for that year’s Paris-Amsterdam race. In 1899, steering wheels started to become a staple in American automobiles.
Students in auto mechanic school should know that early steering wheels comprised of wooden sheathing covering a metal carrier. For both safety and financial reasons, however, the wooden sheathing would eventually be replaced by plastic. By the 1950s, it would become more common for steering wheels to be covered in leather.
Also, the entirely mechanical nature of steering wheels in their earlier days meant that they could only be pulled left or right. This posed problems when the car was not moving, as the wheels would be resistant to the steering wheel turning in either direction due to friction with the ground. Power steering would eventually be introduced in the coming decades to make steering easier and more practical for drivers.
The 1950s and Beyond: How Steering Wheels Continue to Evolve
Thanks to companies like GM and Chrysler, power steering would become increasingly common by the mid-1950s, and one in every four vehicles would be equipped with it by 1956.
Since then, steering wheels — particularly their centre consoles — have been adorned with features like cruise control, horn activation switches, airbags (introduced in the 1970s), on-board computers, audio systems, and volume and tuning for the car radio. The need for space to add interior buttons and controls for these features has meant that steering wheels have expanded in size over time, too.
Of course, the ever-evolving state of modern technology means that online automotive school students could possibly see cars without any steering wheels soon due to the development of autonomous vehicles. Alternatively, manufacturers could keep the traditional steering wheel intact, but with new innovations such as automated driving and steer-by-wire technology.
While steering wheels are a part of a vehicle most of us take for granted, it’s hard to say what exactly the future holds for them, or if there is even a future for the traditional steering wheel. Whatever the case, it’s certainly been quite a ride.
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