There have been many changes in 120 years.
The 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class recently debuted sporting an updated exterior design, updated cabin technology, and a brand-new steering wheel. Available in all-leather or a combination of wood and leather, this capacitive steering wheel in the new E-Class will be part of a new digitalized generation of steering wheels from Mercedes that we will see on future models. The wheel now features a two-zone sensor mat, which can detect when the driver is gripping the wheel properly, as well as touch control buttons that now function capacitively.
Mercedes wheel design language has evolved tremendously over the past 120 years. In fact, the company (which was then called Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) was among the first to move from a simple steering crank or steering rod to the more functional steering wheel.
The company's first automobile, the patent motor car by Carl Benz in 1886, didn't even have a wheel. Instead, it used a steering crank because carriage drivers were used to pulling on reins to direct the horses. The first steering wheel was created by French engineer Alfred Vacheron on his Panhard & Levassor, which was used in the world's first automobile race from Paris to Rouen in July 1894. Vacheron only placed 11th in the race but the idea of the steering wheel took off.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft adopted the steering wheel in 1900 on its Phoenix racing car. Not only did this improve the driveability, but the wheel even included a tilting column. In 1902, the wheel even included essential engine controls such as ignition timing and the air/fuel mixture. Through the decades, other steering wheel innovations such as a klaxon horn button, horn ring turn signals, column gearshifts, power steering, crumple zones, impact absorbers, cruise controls, airbags, and multi-function controls were added.
"Steering wheel design is a world of its own and a very special challenge that is often underestimated," says Hans-Peter Wunderlich, Creative Director of Interior Design at Mercedes-Benz. "Besides the seat, the steering wheel is the only component in the vehicle with which we have intensive physical contact. The fingertips feel little things that we normally don't notice. If an unevenness is disturbing or the steering wheel does not fit snugly in our hands, we don't like it. This haptic sensation is sent to the brain as feedback and determines whether or not we like the car."
All of this evolution has culminated in the capacitive steering wheel on the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
"It is the most beautiful steering wheel we have ever built," says Wunderlich. "The proportions of the airbag, spokes, and rim are absolutely harmonious. The airbag is not concealed, but staged as a flattering sphere." Mercedes will offer the wheel in Sport, Luxury, and Supersport designs, each of which offers a unique flavor in the E-Class' cabin.