According to the new VW patents, turn indicators and other regular features will be moved to the steering wheel rim. Technicians from the Indy Auto Man dealership, IN, claim that the technology goes beyond simple indication.

So, Volkswagen offers a steering wheel with controls on its inner rim. Buttons can be physical, touch, or a combination of both. Moreover, their number may vary depending on the model and configuration, which means a driver gets the most complete layout on the SUV like Atlas and the minimum on the base Jetta. Such a decision could be one of the first steps taken as part of Volkswagen’s interior simplification program.

Although the system seems complex, in theory, in reality it is very simple. Two zones with controls (physical or sensorial) are located on the left and right sides of the steering wheel. Those on the left, Volkswagen calls primary and those on the right are secondary. After activating any of the main controls on the left, additional ones on the right light up, after which the driver selects the desired one. For example, by pressing or touching the button to activate the headlights on the left side of the steering wheel, the available options on the right are highlighted, and the driver can select low or high beams, turn on the fog lights, etc. The same applies to the infotainment system, which offers the possibility to change station or track.

At first glance, the technology seems pointless, but Volkswagen says it’s beneficial for three reasons. The first and most obvious is security. Thanks to the steering wheel controls, the driver does not have to take their hands off the wheel to access a wide range of functions. Secondly, it gives more freedom to interior designers. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, VW could save millions in production because lights, cruise control, and trip computers would be located on the steering wheel, eliminating the need to develop and manufacture these components. 

Many physical controls will be replaced by a single system that is easy to adapt to different models. While the VW concept sketches only show existing features, experts see the potential for more. For example, future Scout SUVs may have an off-road select button, while sporty models like the Porsche 911 may have stability control. And all this without taking your hands off the wheel.

How controllers evolve

The rejection of physical controllers in cars is not a new invention. The 1986 Buick Riviera was the first production car with a touchscreen.

The CRT touchscreen wasn’t bad, but it took several decades before they became good enough for widespread use in the automotive industry. After Tesla released their Model S with a 17-inch touchscreen, automakers rushed to develop ever-larger touchscreens. Today, a car without such a component is an exception. 

Classification of interactions

In addition to basic motion controls such as steering and brakes, interactions can be divided into three groups. The first group is primary interactions – all functions directly related to driving and safety, like speed tracking, turning on the turn signals, and operating the wipers.

Secondary interactions occur frequently but take little time to complete. This may be changing the volume of music, setting the temperature in the cabin, or turning on/off the air conditioner.

Tertiary interactions are the opposite of secondary ones. They are rarely performed but require a high cognitive load and more time. Examples of such interactions are changing settings in the car or entering a destination in the navigation system.

The new era of controllers

Over time, these groups of interactions developed almost identically. The interior of the Volkswagen Golf is a great example. The first-generation Golf had a simple interior. Primary actions were limited to a few buttons, two gauges, and a turn signal switch. The same goes for the secondary settings, which have three temperature control sliders and several volume knobs. The only possible tertiary interaction is finding and tuning radio stations.

Over the years, one can see the impact of innovation on interactions. With each generation, the manufacturer adds more and more functions to the interior.

In all three groups, the number of actions increases. On the Golf, for example, in addition to some basic gauges and controls, primary interactions now include speed limit warnings, adaptive cruise control, and a range of other safety systems. Even such a simple task as turning on the wipers or headlights has become more complex, there are various modes, sensors, and settings.

But the most noticeable change is the rapid growth of tertiary interactions. The first-generation Golf owner could only select a radio station, but today, cars can offer an endless list of podcast platforms, and streaming services. Almost all cars are equipped with navigation systems, telephone connectivity, and applications connected to the Internet. All this can be customized to your liking. For example, you can choose how tight the steering wheel will turn, and what information will be displayed on the dashboard.

Initially, a driver used physical buttons for all of these interactions. But over time, with each new generation, the display grew bigger, and the number of physical controls decreased.

The last-generation Golf is another big step forward, as even secondary interactions have been transformed into the touch interface. Most of the remaining physical buttons are those required by law.

Most experts don’t like the idea of ditching the physical buttons, especially considering how Volkswagen’s touch controls work. And although the desire to save money is understandable, the application resembles the story of the useless Tesla steering wheel. Why take away the pointer levers when they have worked perfectly for hundreds of years? Fortunately, those who adhere to classic forms and controllers can always opt for used Volkswagen models that will please their owners for years to come. 

Alex is a pet freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience. He attended Colorado State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, which was where he first got some experience in animal nutrition. After graduating from University, Alex began sharing his knowledge as a freelance writer specializing in pets.

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