Tesla may introduce what it calls the “interactive user interface for a steering wheel” on a future model. It filed a patent for what is essentially a steering wheel that has several touch-sensitive panels which allow the driver to access various controls without having to take a hand off the wheel and browse through the infotainment.
As the patent drawings show, the idea is to have trackpads for your thumbs, which would work not only for browsing through menus, but also recognize gestures. These pressure-sensitive panels would also provide haptic (and audible) feedback in order to reassure the user that a given command was issued.
Such actions as a simple touch, tapping, double tapping and swiping would be supported. And alongside these two thumb trackpads, there would also be an additional touch-sensitive area on the central steering wheel prong – this would be used for putting the car in Park, Neutral, Reverse or Drive, as well as enabling the cruise control (and Autopilot).
The wheel would apparently also have proximity sensors which would sense an approaching digit and highlight various available commands, or maybe bring up some menu bars (something similar can be found in recent VW models with the more advanced infotainment solutions).
This would be cool and oh-so Tesla, but the fact it filed the patent doesn’t automatically mean it will end up using this solution in a production car; it does tell us, though, that thought has gone into this and it is being considered.
Other manufacturers are already doing this, although not through the exclusive use of touch-panels. The prime example here is Ferrari, a manufacturer whose recent steering wheels brim with buttons for functions like indicators, headlights, windscreen wipers, drive mode selection and engine start, on top of the already familiar gear shifter paddles and infotainment navigation buttons.
For the SF90 Stradale, one of the Prancing Horse’s most recent and advanced models, it relies on a mix of buttons and touch panels for the aforementioned functions. This cutting edge steering wheel gives you some idea about what this new Tesla smart helm might operate like, although it will probably adopt a more minimalist aesthetic.
Audi has also gone down the touch panel and haptic feedback road for most of the center stack controls. It hasn’t put any prod-sensitive panels on the wheel, but if you’ve operated the climate controls in a new A6 or A8, you probably have a good idea of what the Tesla solution might feel like (or where it was inspired from).
One automaker that has been selling production cars with touch pads on the steering wheel is Mercedes-Benz. It’s been doing so for a few years now, but the panels it uses (designed to be thump-operated) are very small, they only support swiping and clicking, and they don’t provide any haptic feedback.
We’ll have to wait and see if Tesla decides to put the solution it filed the patent for into production. It would certainly help make its cars’ cabins even more minimalist, by removing the gear selector stalk on the right of the wheel, but at the same time some users might find it awkward to use the touch controls and would prefer the traditional column-mounted selector instead.