Need more space for your legs on long trips? Here's your answer.
One wouldn't think that the standard rounded steering wheel is an element of car design that needs a rethink. It's one of the few major controls that hasn't changed much in over a century, other than the addition of an airbag and a few buttons to control features like the volume of the sound system and cruise control. But there are a few signs that the steering wheel as we know it won't be a-round (get it?) forever. Tesla has already launched its infamous yoke steering wheel, while automakers like Hyundai have envisioned a wheel with an integrated instrument display. The latest automaker to come up with something different is BMW, as discovered by CarBuzz in new patent filings for a partially folding steering wheel.
In patent sketches, we can see that BMW's design shows the bottom section of the steering wheel which can be folded backward. Described as being suitable for a two-lane motor vehicle, a hinge mechanism allows the bottom section of the rim to be folded away. But why would one even need such a steering wheel? According to the patent filing, the folding steering wheel creates more space, specifically with regards to legroom. We could feasibly see this being the case on longer, mostly straight roads when regular twirling of the wheel won't be taking place. Small city cars that wouldn't typically accommodate taller drivers may also benefit.
Mention is also made of a section of the steering wheel folding towards the driver. In this case, a mini "table-like shelf" can be created. We have to assume that using such a feature would only make sense in a fully autonomous vehicle. Indeed, the patent mentions that the steering wheel should be folded when the car is in an autonomous driving mode or state. The patent further points out that the design of this foldable steering wheel can reduce the risk of injury for a driver in an accident.
Stretchable artificial leather and other materials are mentioned. These will need to withstand the folding and unfolding of part of the steering wheel. Whether or not this unusual wheel design makes it into a 7 Series or X7 anytime soon remains to be seen, but it's clear that autonomous driving has created the need for more flexible vehicle interiors that can be configured for whichever driving mode is active.