New two-spoke steering wheel: a complex development project
Creating a steering wheel and then applying it across a range of models is not as easy as it might seem at first sight. “In the past, steering wheels were fairly simple things that were only used to steer the vehicle. But these days, they also contain an airbag and various controls for the vehicle’s technologies and safety systems,” says Peter Olah, head of interior design - architecture, when describing the difficulties of designing steering wheels.
As a result, a whole series of factors have to be taken into account when designing steering wheels and trying to work out the best solution. Needless to say, parameters like the steering wheel’s diameter, the thickness of its ring and the number of spokes also play a role. “When you’re turning a steering wheel, having as few spokes as possible is more convenient,” Olah says, explaining one of the ideas behind the current two-spoke ŠKODA steering wheel.
Head of Interior Design - Architecture
“We’d long dreamt of a two-spoke steering wheel, and now our engineers have finally managed to create a sufficiently strong structure for it,” says Marwan Khiat, interior project manager, about one of the key requirements for the new steering wheel design.
When it became clear that the new construction would make it possible to use just two spokes, the designers started to make their dream come true. The very first sketch of the new steering wheel was pretty close to the end result.
Peter Olah with Norbert Weber (Head of Interior Design, HMI and Color&Trim) and Marwan Khiat
Like an item of jewellery
“The steering is the interior’s centrepiece, in a way. It’s one of the few places we can put the company’s logo on, so for us it’s a hugely important element of the car’s identity,” says Khiat, indicating what a tricky job it is to design a component as basic and essential as the steering wheel.
The ŠKODA team did an outstanding job, though. “We wanted the centre of the steering wheel to be as clean as possible, both to make the logo stand out and to avoid any sense of clutter,” says Khiat. There’s no doubt they achieved that: the two-spoke steering wheel appears to float in space. Besides the logo, the steering wheel has some other distinctive features, though. “In total, there are 14 buttons for controlling the car’s functions, and two rotational controllers that look almost like items of jewellery,” Khiat explains.
Interior Project Manager
The logic of the arrangement of these controls remained identical to the logic ŠKODA used in previous design versions, with the exception of the more distinctive rotational elements. The striking horizontal extension of these rotational controls ties in with the other interior lines. “We could have opted for touch-sensitive surfaces, for example, but for us it’s important to have controls with a tangible response,” Olah adds. In his view, that contributes to the outstanding ergonomics of the steering wheel. “Our customers want to get in the car and drive – they want everything to be intuitive,” Olah says, explaining why they didn’t change the design of the controls.
The overall arrangement of the various elements and other design “tricks” guarantee that the driver is always aware of the angle at which the steering wheel is turned. That’s also why the bottom part of the steering wheel features a kind of stunted third spoke. “It’s an interesting orientation feature that works both optically and by touch. And what’s more, in the future we can use it for various adaptations of the steering wheel,” Peter Olah explains.
Variations and rock-solid foundations
In addition, this design made it possible to prepare an actual version of the steering wheel with a third spoke. That version is intended for ŠKODA sports models, i.e. RS cars and Sportline and Monte Carlo versions. “A steering wheel’s life cycle is longer than a car’s – steering wheels are used for ten years or even longer. Having various versions allows us to adapt their appearance to the customer’s taste and requirements and to make the steering wheel fit better with different interiors,” Marwan Khiat explains.
Two aspects that ŠKODA does not experiment with, though, are the steering wheel’s basic shape and its diameter. “We looked at various size options, but it’s too complicated. A different size has a huge impact on the feeling you get from driving the car and the overall ergonomics. If you make the steering wheel smaller, for instance, it means you have a smaller ‘window’ for looking at the instrument panel,” says Khiat, explaining why they stuck to one universal size for all models. Even with the new steering wheel, drivers should continue to control the car in the same way as they’re used to, without the need for getting the feel of something new. “It’s the space inside the circle that’s our playground,” the project manager says.
The new two-spoke steering wheel was first unveiled in the fourth-generation of the ŠKODA OCTAVIA. Now it is being given to other ŠKODA models as well. Its designers are rightly proud of it: the steering wheel is ergonomic, fresh-looking and enables a range of variations, including a three-spoke version.
Two-spoke steering wheels used to be fairly usual in automobiles – they even featured in the history of ŠKODA cars. A two-spoke steering wheel could be found in the famous FELICIA cabriolet from 1959, for example, and was familiar to drivers of the more recent FAVORIT, whose qualities earned admiring glances from the Volkswagen concern. Now, many years later, the two-spoke steering wheel is making its comeback in ŠKODA cars.
The new two-spoke steering wheel continues in the tradition of the carmaker, it had also been in a popular model ŠKODA FAVORIT.
Three-spoke steering wheels will remain with new ŠKODA models, for example you can find it in the model OCTAVIA RS.
Its world premiere came with the fourth-generation ŠKODA OCTAVIA last autumn. Now, as part of the changes rolled out for 2021, almost all other ŠKODA models are getting one too. The only exception is the electric CITIGOe iV.
It took about three years for ŠKODA to develop the two-spoke steering wheel. The process from the first sketches to the first physical prototypes lasted around a year and a half, with roughly the same amount of time taken up by testing. Around ten different versions were created during development. These were worked on to arrive at the ideal shape and ideal positioning of the controls so they are in easy reach of the driver’s fingers. “Even though there’s lots we can do in the computer environment, physical models are still crucial,” says Olah, confirming that computerised design has its limitations in this regard.
Put simply, you need to grip a steering wheel in your hands, to try out its shape and ergonomics, to feel its surface and the design of its various features. With the new two-spoke wheel that all turned out brilliantly, with the result that it makes driving ŠKODA cars an even better experience.