Ford thinks the old ways with no visible buttons were better.
Remember a time when a steering wheel had one function and one function only? Ford does, and it wants to bring them back. At least that appears to be the case after CarBuzz discovered a patent filed by Ford with both the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and German patent office (DPMA) for a new type of steering wheel with no visible buttons. That doesn't mean it won't be multifunctional, however. Instead, Ford's genius plan involves the steering wheel being made of a malleable material that is able to be squeezed, with capacitive proximity sensors hidden within the construction that will respond to inputs.
The patent specifically mentions having buttons at the upper and lower edges of the wheel, with functions on both the front and rear of the steering wheel. As for how you'll know what 'button' does what, Ford says that the new invention makes provision for a massive round screen within the boundaries of the rim, which seems like a straightforward answer rather than creating some sort of self-lit system within the rim itself. The rim will rotate around a fixed screen in a modern take on the Maserati Boomerang's strange steering wheel. Controls can be touch and pressure-sensitive thanks to the plethora of sensors within the wheel, and we can envision gestures being used too, like swiping from left to right across the top of the wheel to change the song while driving your Mustang Mach-E.
But what happens when you turn the wheel - since that's what wheels do - and the controls rotate? Well Ford has thought of that too. When the angle of the wheel has changed, a series of steering angle sensors within the wheel will detect how much the wheel has been turned, and offset the control placement by that same amount. Basically, if your voice command button was located in the 12 o'clock position on the steering wheel when it was straight, no matter how much you rotate the wheel, pushing on the 12 o'clock point will always trigger the same command.
As with all patents, there's never a guarantee that it might enter production. Ford's Pet Mode, for example, is quite likely to, while Hyundai's digital steering wheel instrumentation probably won't. Either way, it's good to see manufacturers can still take time out of their busy days to reinvent the wheel.