Design

Tiller to command center: Mercedes-Benz has spent 120 years perfecting steering wheels

The steering wheel has come a long way, and Mercedes-Benz has been on the cutting edge of steering wheel technology for more than a century.

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

What makes a steering wheel perfect? It needs to be the right size, feel good in your hands, and connect with the vehicle delivering a level of responsiveness that makes the drive to be exactly what you want and expect. Some say the best steering wheels also have controls for the stereo system, crash avoidance features, and cruise control. Others would say that the best steering wheels have none of those controls - that a horn is all it needs.

Mercedes-Benz has been on the cutting edge of steering wheel technology for over a century, starting in the 1800s and through to this month's reveal of the next-generation E-Class, which features capacitive functionality for the first time.

Early years

Benz Patent-Motorwagen, 1886

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz has spent 120 years working to improve the steering wheel. But, the first Mercedes vehicle didn't have one. The year was 1886 and Carl Benz's first patent motor car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen (shown above), like that designed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1889, did not have a wheel or steering crank. Back then, drivers were used to pulling on horse reins and operating carriages accordingly.

The first steering wheel

Erste Automobilwettfahrt, Paris-Rouen, 1894

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While Benz, Daimler, and Maybach were some of the first motor vehicle engineers out of the gate, it's Alfred Vacheron that is considered the inventor of the steering wheel. The story goes that during the world's first automobile race (pictured above) – from Paris to Rouen, France in July 1894 – Vacheron installed a a wheel instead of the traditional steering lever in his Panhard & Levassor (powered by a Daimler engine, natch), which allowed him to have better control resulting in Vacheron's ability to safely go faster. He ended up placing 11th but the wheel trend had begun.

The Mercedes Simplex

MULI 0208, Mercedes Simplex

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Automobile racing was again at the forefront of innovation in 1900 when Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft equipped its Phoenix racing car with a steering wheel. In this instance, the steering column was tilted (it had been stiffly upright in the Vacheron car), which proved a worthy innovation.

Further, steering evolved in 1902 when the Mercedes Simplex (pictured above) had levers added to its heel that regulated engine ignition timing and the air/fuel mixture.

The 1920s through 1940s

Mercedes-Benz Typ 680 Modell S, 26/120/180 PS, 1927

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While engine design grew in sophistication and was refined, so too was the functionality of the steering wheel. As automobiles became more popular they not only had to contend with horses, carriages, buggies, and wagons but also with pedestrians, bicyclists, and other autos. Cars needed a communication device. Enter: the horn.

The horn started as a bulb horn mounted on the steering wheel rim which quickly evolved into a klaxon horn button on the steering wheel hub. By the 1920s, a horn ring on the steering wheel spokes had become standard equipment.

In 1949, the horn ring earned double duty serving as a turn signal as well. To indicated whether the vehicle was turning left or right, the ring simple needed to be turned left or right. Then, an approximately 20-centimeter-long indicator arm swung sideways out of the body, and indicated the direction of travel

Soon, these indicators would be replaced by orange-yellow flashing lights though they still remained activated by the ring.

The 1950s

Mercedes-Benz 220 S \u201cPonton\u201d saloon of the model series W 180/W 128, 1954 to 1959), interior with dashboard

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

By the time the 1950s arrived, car designers had made the steering wheel a central interface between the driver and the car. More equipment was added including a gearshift on the steering column in 1951 in order to make the cabin more comfortable for the driver and passenger. By removing the shifter from the floor, the car's front bench seat could accommodate three people instead of the traditional two. This was first shown in the 300 "Adenauer-Mercedes" (W 186) and in the 220 (W 187) (shown above).

In 1955, Mercedes added a lever for headlamps. Power steering was introduced in 1958.

The 1960s

Mercedes-Benz Typ 220 Sb, Baureihe W 111

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While the 50s was all about function, the 1960s steering wheel was all about safety. The "Fintail" (W 111) (shown above) was the world's first vehicle to feature an integrated safety concept consisting of a stable passenger cell, crumple zones, a new safety steering wheel with a large, deformable baffle plate which reduced the risk of injury in the event of a collision, and a split steering column which was offset to the rear.

This innovation made is possible to avoid what was colloquially known as the "lance effect" during a crash, wherein the steering column and wheel would compress in the driver when the auto was crash head-on.

To further increase safety, Mercedes-Benz introduced a patented safety steering system with a telescopic steering column and impact absorber, which became standard on their entire passenger car range in 1967.

Indicator and headlight flasher functionality remained on the wheel. In 1963, the lever was extended to include the windshield wipers and windshield washer system functions. The windshield wiper was previously activated with a pull switch on top of the instrument panel.

The 1970s and 1980s

Mercedes-Benz type 350 SL of the 107 series (1971 \u2013 1989).

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Innovation continued at a rapid rate. The introduction of the 350 SL Roadster (shown above) in 1971 improved safety with a wide padded plate in the center of the steering wheel that was designed to absorb impact in the event of a crash.

The spokes served as supports for the rim. In the event of a crash, force was transferred to them in such a way as to ensure that the wheel would not break.

Buttons for the horn were moved to the center of the steering wheel while wiper, washer, headlamp, and indicator functionality remained.

In December 1975, the Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9 became one fo the first automobiles in the world to be equipped with a standard cruise control system. The world's first proximity cruise control system would be launched in the 1998 S-Class (220 series).

The first airbag was added to the steering wheel in 1981 in the S-Class (126 series), but the airbag's size was a recurring issue designers had to deal with. Eventually, the airbag would be able to be compacted more, allowing for more design freedom while delivering the same and better levels of safety. By 1992, a driver airbag was standard on all Mercedes models. Two years later a passenger airbag became standard equipment.

1998: The first multifunction steering wheel

Mercedes Benz S Class 220 model series (1998 to 2005)

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz steering wheels took a big leap forward in 1998 with the introduction of the multifunction steering wheel in the S-Class 220 (shown above). The driver was, for the first time, able to access their radio, car phone, and a driver's information display with eight menus from the steering wheel in addition to its traditional functionalities.

2005: The gearshift returns to the steering wheel

Mercedes-Benz S-Class 221 series Steering wheel and instrument cluster form the primary area of the newly developed operating concept of the S-Class.

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

New M- and S-Class designs debuted in 2005 (S-Class 221 series shown above) and with them the automatic transmission gear shifter was moved to the steering column. Additionally, shift buttons were added to the selector making it easy for those wishing to choose their own gear to do so. Paddle shifters made their debut on 2008 on the SL Roadster.

Steering wheels were bulky due to the influx of airbag and infotainment functionality, which required cables, circuit boards, and sensors to be installed in the unit. Eventually, it would be able to be slimmed down as technology evolved.

2016: First touch-sensitive buttons

Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W 213) 2016

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The 2016 E-Class became the first car I the world to feature touch-sensitive buttons on its steering wheel. The technology featured the ability to control the entire infotainment system by swiping a finger across a pad on the steering wheel rather than taking taking your hands off the wheel. In addition to the pads, the wheel also had four buttons to the left and right of center that allows for volume control, phone call initiation and other functions.

2020: Capacitive Steering Wheel

Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse (W 213), 2020

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The next generation of Mercedes-Benz steering wheel has been unveiled in the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. It features a two-zone sensor mat in the steering wheel rim that registers whether or not the wheel is being held. Unlike in systems by other manufacturers, no movement is required.

The Touch Control buttons have been integrated into the steering wheel spokes now also function capacitively. The panels are now flush and allow for swiping gestures as well as use in hot temperatures.

The new wheel is the same size as the one in the outgoing model.

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Nuts & Bolts

 
 

St. George Island is a desirable jumping off point for Northwest Florida adventures.

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

There's a lot of wide open America to fall in love with between your home and your destination. Taking the long way or the road less traveled isn't a bad thing. It can lead to new adventures that end up as fond memories.

Almost as important as the destination itself is the vehicle you choose to road trip in. Click here to see AutomotiveMap's picks for best road trip SUV and here to see the best road trip cars. Click here to see AutomotiveMap's advice for planning the perfect road trip.

The next time you're planning a road trip to Northwest Florida, consider the following destinations, which are not on the usual tourist roster.

Grayton Beach State Park

Grayton Beach State Park

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

With over 2,000 acres of parkland, Grayton Beach State Park has something for nearly everyone. Bicycling, hiking, birding, paddling on the backwaters, fishing, a beach, and a boat ramp are among the amenities. There are camp sites and cabins available for rent including accessible camping options.

​Bald Point State Park

Bald Point State Park is perfect for budding wildlife and nature photographers. Grab your camera and your bicycle and head to explore the park where each autumn bald eagles and other migrating raptors, and monarch butterflies, all stop to take a break on their way South for the winter. The park also has beaches, canoe/kayak launch, and bathing station. There is only one primitive camp site available and reservations must be made in advance.

Downtown Pensacola ghost tour

Friends in front of Pensacola Mural

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

Grab your sneakers and get ready to head out to learn more about the history of Pensacola, one of the earliest-founded cities in Florida, and its macabre (and often humorous) past. Each tour features a minimum of six people and starts at Fleet Landing. Though it's not long (about one mile), there's plenty of standing and listening during the one-hour tour. Want more fun? Take the ghost and graveyard tour, offered by the same company.

Deer Lake State Park

Coastal dunes are rare in Florida but if you're a fan, Deer Lake State Park should be on your list. It has a coastal dune lake, an exceptionally rare geographic feature. Additionally, visitors can enjoy the white sandy beach of the Gulf Coast, birding, and hiking on the interpretative trail. Swimming is allowed. There are no camping facilities at this park.

Florida's caverns

FLORIDA CAVERNS MARIANNA

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

One of the best parts of the Sunshine State is kept out of the sun entirely. Florida Caverns State Park is home to large underground rooms where visitors can see the usual array of cavern features (including wildlife) in addition to chisel marks made by 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps workers. Guided tours of the caves are available, but sell out quickly.

Florida’s Big Bend National Scenic Byway

If you're the type that likes to put the windows/top down on your car and take in the sights and sounds of a long drive, the Big Bend National Scenic Byway may be right up your alley. The 220-mile scenic drive winds through coastal and forest portions of Leon, Wakulla, and Franklin Counties. Guides that break down the route by your specific time allowance and interest are available at the website.

Florida's highest waterfall

Falling Waters State Park

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

Hop off of I-10 and visit Chipley, Florida, home of Florida's highest waterfall. Measuring 100 feet deep, 20 feet wide, the cylindrical pit that the water flows into starts from a small stream and falls 73 feet to the bottom. Where does it go from there? No one knows.

Adventure further and explore the Sink Hole Trail at Falling Waters State Park, which features a path that winds under a canopy of trees and includes a wooden boardwalk where visitors can see migrating butterflies, take a dip in the lake, or enjoy a picnic. Campsites are available.

World’s Smallest Police Station

The World's Smallest Police Station is located in Downton Carrabelle, Florida, next to the post office. While there's not a lot to see, it makes for a great selfie spot and Instagram moment. The best news is, seeing it is free!

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

TOPSAIL HILL PRESERVE STATE PARK

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

The emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico serve as the tipping off point for a fabulous visit to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. White quartz dunes, old-growth pine forests, sandy scrubland, and wetlands are all part of the park's surrounds. Bicycling, birding, fishing, hiking, and paddling can all be on the agenda. Guided tours are available. Camping, cabins, bungalows, and glamping are available, as are accessible accommodations.

Dog Island

Dog Island is one of the most unique parts of Florida. No vehicles are allowed on the barrier island that sites just 3.5 miles off-shore from Carrabelle. It's a space where time slows to true island time. There's only one hotel on the island and most of the environment is unspoiled.

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Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The next-gen 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class will come with the latest iteration of MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system. The 2021 E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet will be the best-networked cars in the Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG passenger-car portfolio.

Here's what you need to know.

The system includes two large screens, side by side.

The MBUX display includes two 12.3-inch screens that are contained under one piece of glass that spans from in front of the driver to the center of the dashboard. These screens are where the instrument cluster is shown and where technology, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, are displayed.

There's voice assistant technology that learns your habits.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class MBUX

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Need some help? Signal the MBUX voice assistant by saying, "Hey, Mercedes."

The system is designed to continuously learn. Are you an Atlanta Braves fan? You can can learn that and prompt you to turn on the radio to the station where the game is playing when it begins.

The MBUX is able to perform a number of weather-related functions, utilizing the voice assist to read the forecast to the driver. The car can even tell you what the snow report is for your favorite ski area.

It can recognize your movements.

The MBUX Interior Assistant recognizes movement. When a hand is approaching a touch screen or the center console touch pad, the system is triggered to change the display and highlight elements. This is similar to a computer mouse hovering over a button on a webpage and the button slightly changes its appearance to let the user know that it is selected.

There's specific functions for AMG models.

The Mercedes-AMG E 53 Coupe and Cabriolet feature MBUX systems with additional AMG-specific functions and displays. Mercedes explains the features:

"These include, for example, the visualization of the driving programs and telemetry data on the touchscreen multimedia display. In the instrument cluster, the driver can switch between three distinct display styles including "Supersport" mode, which is particularly striking, with a central, round tachometer and perspective horizontal displays to the left and right of the tachometer, creating an impression of depth. In addition, various special displays such as engine data, gear indicator, warm-up, setup, G-meter and race timer can be selected via the AMG menu."

The MBUX system interacts with the new Mercedes steering wheel.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class's MBUX steering wheel

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The automaker has redesigned its steering wheel to include capacitive sensor technology. With this technology, some functions will operate similar to how your smartphone operates.

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