Motorists would benefit from turning back their clocks at least one hour, maybe two.
So say some U.S. police agencies trying to get a handle on the safest way to hold a steering wheel. And lower is better, the trend suggests.
The 9-3 position is gaining favor over the time-honored — and arguably more comfortable — 10-2. The California Highway Patrol has even suggested 8-4.
Unfortunately, it may be a little too early in the game to make the move. Or too late, depending on cycle plans.
Often, as auto makers work 'round the clock to cram more content into steering wheels, the 9-3 grip is already spoken-for. Literally.
Two-spoke wheels may preclude the position outright. And thanks to features such as dual-stage airbags, 3-spoke and 4-spoke designs also are getting more crowded.
“You may have one inflator, but you may have two connectors to sequence the timing of the firing,” says Roy Deutschmann, director of engineering-North American and Asian steering wheel programs, Breed Steering Systems.
“What really takes up the room is not just the connector size, but the wiring that you're trying to package into it. We've seen a pyrotechnic-type package that's just huge. It's like a bolt system that fires, and it has to break a ring. I mean, it can get from very small to very large.”
Then consider the impact of including switches for audio and cruise control systems.
“That falls in my lap and they say, ‘Here, package this,’” Deutschmann says.
For instance, asMotor Co. seeks to position itself as a safety leader, it's exploring “deeper” wheel designs.
“They have some test requirements that cause us to increase the ‘dish’ of the wheel, which is the top of the rim plane to the top of the airbag,” says the Breed executive, whose company supplies-owned brands such as Lincoln and Jaguar. “The deeper that pocket is, the better it is for out-of-position occupants.”
Why does this pose a challenge?
“It's taking that package space out. There's an inch right there that's being thrown out the window.”
What's the most unusual request he's seen?
“There hasn't been anything really off-the-wall. They've had those Tiptronic systems. That's behind the wheel. There's one that we did for a (Ford) Transit program in England where it (the Durashift EST control) was actually on the front surface.”
That feature currently is in production, he adds.
Meanwhile, there are indicators that it will be increasingly difficult for suppliers to steer clear of design dilemmas. Forecasts call for a $20 billion expansion in the telematics market, so controls for those or other features can be expected to migrate from the instrument panel to the steering wheel. (This already is happening with cell phone mute buttons.)
So how do suppliers cope? Michigan-based Breed, which lays claim to nearly 30% of the steering wheel market, has simply called a time-out.
Instead of getting completed designs from auto makers, Breed suggests they provide only a “theme,” such as 3-spoke or 4-spoke.
“We're now giving them the completed design that we've proved out and say, ‘OK, here's something that works for that general description. Can you clay around this?’”
And there is good news for those who crave the 9-3 hand position: two-spoke wheels are becoming a fashion faux pas.
“The designs that I've been seeing are more the 4-spoke. They call them ‘mini 4-spokes’ where the lower two spokes are somewhat closer together. There's only like an inch apart from the two.”
To date, there's no clock talk from auto makers. Deutschmann says safety and styling are the key design drivers.
Wood and leather remain preferred steering wheel materials — particularly for upscale vehicle programs. But carbon fiber is making gains in the sports car segment.
Through Momo in Italy, Breed has done some such work for Acura. Using carbon fiber enables the infusion of colors and the suggestion of texture while maintaining a glossy finish.
There is also capability to use less lacquer to give genuine texture to a carbon fiber wheel. But Breed has yet to sell the idea.
And just where does Deutschmann put his hands on the wheel?
“I usually actually just drive with one hand on the 6 o'clock position,” he says, with an uneasy laugh. “If I get in a tense situation as far as rain or snow, I probably go more up to 10 and 2.”