Fly-by-wire control systems are fairly common on modern airliners today. Rather than connecting the flight stick straight to the control surfaces on the wings and tail, the stick communicates with a flight computer digitally, which then makes the actual mechanical movements while automatically compensating for factors like wind speed. It’s a once-removed system of control, but it also allows for less pilot fatigue and more intelligent computer intervention should things go wrong.
Now, Nissan has announced a drive-by-wire system coming to Infiniti cars in 2013. Rather than relying on a driver to physically rotate the rack and pinion steering column via the steering wheel, Nissan’s system simply sends steering information to the onboard computer, and the computer handles the rest.
We’re told the system offers the same road feel without additional driver fatigue–the system includes a camera that analyzes car lanes for the driver, reducing a driver’s micro adjustments and compensating for crosswinds without the white knuckles. And no doubt, it will couple well with other, recently announced Nissan tech that will allow the car to self-steer to avoid accidents.
There’s also a level of customization that could change the way a car feels. Today, we expect luxury cars and sports cars to steer a bit differently. Nissan’s system, however, will allow drivers to tweak how tight they like their controls. So drivers could soon define the feel of a car as much as automakers.
But what’s equally interesting is that, with pure digital steering, everything about the traditional car cockpit can be reimagined.
“Theoretically, you could have no steering wheel whatsoever,” a spokesperson tells me. With the steering column out of play, there’s no reason that a touchscreen, gesture interface, even an Xbox 360 gamepad couldn’t be used to steer the car. In the more immediate future, Nissan suggested the possibility of cars customized for left-handed and right-handed people. If the steering column doesn’t need to shape so much of the experience, moving a steering wheel over a few inches is no longer a challenge.
That said, when Nissan’s new drive-by-wire tech launches next year, the wheel will still be connected to the steering column. There are three reasons Nissan could be doing this–current regulations, engineering fail-safes (if drive-by-wire cuts out, the wheel will engage with the shaft) and, of course, consumer expectation–steering wheels work pretty well, and a car without one might not exactly improve on anything just yet. And no automaker wants to tip their hand on the real endgame at play in the industry: cars that drive themselves.