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Toyota patents variable-thickness steering wheel that can be quickly changed

In the realm of driver control, there is perhaps no interface more sacred than the steering wheel. Efforts arrive rework, do it again it suggested justifiable angry, because nothing seems to violate our sense of dominance over the car more than tweaking this humble hoop. However, that doesn’t stop automakers and the latest rethink of the steering wheel comes from Toyota as a rim that can change its thickness on the fly.

The reason, Toyota said in a patent application discovered by a user on NewNissanZ (full PDF here), are existing methods of lane-keeping warnings that can be distracting to drivers. These include beeps, flashing lights, steering wheel vibrations, or even a push in the opposite direction when the computer thinks the driver is straying from the lane.

Such warnings can be helpful, but they can also be annoying, or even harmful, if, for example, a flashing warning prompts the driver to look away from the road or if the wheels push back when the driver The car is actually trying to change lanes to avoid it.

Toyota’s solution? The steering wheel uses the expansion and contraction of the rim to warn the driver. Embedded throughout the steering wheel rims are points that can be thickened or thinner to change the friction between the driver’s hand and the wheel. The thicker the cross section, the greater the friction and vice versa. As friction increases, it acts as a reminder, or even creates a subtle traction, which can help keep the car centered in its lane.

The thickness will be adjusted by small actuators installed around the rim. They can take the form of a small expanding or contracting spring, an inflation/deflation device, or a miniature cam. Electronically activated, they allow one part of the rim to expand or contract while the other remains unchanged.

In one diagram, Toyota illustrates how a driver can misjudge the amount of wheel needed to turn right. On the current trajectory, where the front wheel is not sharp enough, the car will leave the road. Presumably, the steering wheel extended under the driver’s right hand, increasing friction, which would create a traction on the wheels to pull the car into a tighter turn.

It’s hard to imagine how this would feel in practice, but there’s potential in this solution. A sensory reminder works better than an auditory or visual alert, and the action can feel more organic than a push from the wheel. Or, it can feel weird and act like another invasion of our driving autonomy. It will be difficult to judge until experienced, assuming that the idea ever materializes.

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