In the summer of 2020, the 2021 E-Class will launch a new, comprehensively digitalized generation of steering wheels from Mercedes-Benz: the capacitive steering wheel. Its rim contains a two-zone sensor mat that detects whether the driver’s hands are gripping the steering wheel. The touch control buttons placed in the spokes also work with digital signals. The first step towards the modern Mercedes-Benz steering wheel was taken by the then Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft 120 years ago: switching from a simple steering crank or steering rod to the significantly more functional steering wheel. This led to the development of today’s high-tech command centre, which enables the driver to steer precisely and, at the same time, comfortably and safely operate numerous comfort and assistance systems.
Developers and designers work hand in hand – and focus on perfecting every detail. For example, every millimeter of a circuit board determines how elegantly the surface can be designed. It’s all about looks and, above all, haptics. “Steering-wheel design is a world of its own and a very special challenge that is often underestimated,” says Hans-Peter Wunderlich, Creative Director Interior Design at Mercedes-Benz, who has been designing steering wheels for around 20 years. “Besides the seat, the steering wheel is the only component in the vehicle with which we have intensive physical contact. The fingertips feel little things that we normally don’t notice. If an unevenness is disturbing or the steering wheel does not fit snugly in our hands, we don’t like it. This haptic sensation is sent to the brain as feedback and determines whether or not we like the car.” The emotional connection to a car is thus created through the sense of touch.
The new generation of steering wheels with capacitive hands-off detection is now also being launched in the E-Class. A two-zone sensor mat is located in the steering wheel rim. “The sensors on the front and back of the rim register whether the steering wheel is being held. No more steering movement is required to signal the assistance systems that the vehicle is under control,” explains Marcus Fiege. The Touch Control buttons integrated into the steering wheel spokes now also function capacitively. This reduces the mechanical operating surfaces to a maximum. The seamless control panels, which are divided into several functional areas, are precisely integrated flush with the spokes. As with a smartphone, touches are recorded and evaluated via capacitive sensor technology, which enables intuitive operation via swiping gestures and pressing of familiar symbols. The high-quality materials have been selected in such a way that operation is possible even in an interior heated up by sunlight. “The system automatically recognizes where the finger is at any given moment. And the buttons are designed for temperatures of over 100 degrees Celsius,” says Fiege.
The steering wheel is available in three versions: “Sport,” “Luxury” and “Supersport.” “It is the most beautiful steering wheel we have ever built,” says Hans-Peter Wunderlich. “The proportions of the airbag, spokes and rim are absolutely harmonious. The airbag is not concealed, but staged as a flattering sphere.” In the “Luxury” version, the spokes form a chalice inspired by elegant Callas flowers in a black panel look, in which the sphere floats. In the “Supersport” version, it is held by two double-decker spokes in black panel design, reminiscent of the wheel wing nuts of sports cars. The steering wheels thus stage high-tech and, at the same time, arouse emotions – in keeping with the design philosophy of Sensual Purity, which expresses the bipolarity of intelligence and emotion.
The size of the steering wheel has remained the same compared to the previous generation. Mercedes-Benz has developed fixed sizes for steering wheels. The steering wheel average is 370 millimeters (“Supersport”) to 380 millimeters (“Luxury”), depending on the version. The steering wheel rim is 29 millimeters wide and 42 to 44 millimeters deep. Hans-Peter Wunderlich: “The steering wheel rim is the secret kingmaker of a steering wheel. Its geometric design is a science in itself that cannot be found in any textbook. The wreath must fit snugly in the hand. If it is a millimeter too much, it feels unpleasantly bulging. If it’s a millimeter too little, it feels like it’s starved. And that impression then clouds the overall feel of the car.”
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