Ford wants to let customers gut their new cars. When autonomous cars reach a high degree of autonomy, the need for traditional car controls will diminish, but some consumers may want to keep control for recreational purposes. In a new patent published last week, the automaker has come up with a plan to satisfy everyone: make the steering wheel, its airbag and the floor pedals all removable.
Ford has a tricky balancing act on its hands if it wants to reach full autonomy. If the car reaches near-full autonomy, but it requires the driver to stay focused, it could cause confusion. This is known as “level three autonomy,” and chief engineer Jackie DiMarco said in a March interview that the company’s goal is to move past it. With big plans to ship fully autonomous cars by 2021, the company has set itself the major goal of shipping autonomous vehicles that won’t need the driver to take control. A removable steering wheel, which clearly defines when the driver does and doesn’t need to be in control, could avoid confusion.
One of the major issues the patent solves is how the airbag works when removing the steering wheels. Traditional designs place the airbag inside the wheel, allowing it to pop out during a crash to cushion the blow. In Ford’s design, there are two airbags, one inside the steering wheel as normal, and one underneath the wheel on the dashboard. The car electronically switches between the two depending on whether the wheel is in place. An alternative suggestion is a module that replaces the wheel with an airbag.
The exact mechanism for connecting the wheel is left relatively open, as it depends on whether Ford opts for a mechanical system operated through the steering column, or an electronic system connected through wires.
As for the pedals on the floor, Ford is considering a number of options for recreating the sensation of pushing down on a mechanical pedal. After all, if the car uses a set of pedals electronically connected to the rest of the vehicle, the pedals will lack the force feedback found in a traditional car. Suggested solutions include a spring-based system and a software-based system that simulates pressure.
With strong competition from the likes of Tesla and Mobileye, Ford has a big task ahead of itself to reach full autonomy.