Nashville, Tennessee -- Even Sebastian Vettel thought the electronic steer-by-wire system in the 2014 Infiniti Q50 wasn’t quite right at first. The four-time Formula 1 world champion driver, who also holds the title “director of performance” for Infiniti, helped tune the Q50 ahead of its launch, and the Red Bull ace wasn’t impressed after one of his initial shakedowns.
“It was just feeling odd. Not natural,” Vettel said.
And this is a guy who’s supposed to be a brand ambassador for Infiniti.
Vettel’s reaction mirrored our own after our first drive in the Infiniti Q50. Executive editor Todd Lassa said the steering felt like “wet cement” in sport mode, and in fact we had trouble finding any setting in which the steering felt right.
Infiniti’s by-wire technology -- called Direct Adaptive Steering, or DAS -- is among the most cutting-edge in the industry, and the Japanese automaker is the first to use it in a production car. The company has been working on the technology for more than a decade, and its engineers and executives say they believe the setup is the steering of the future. DAS has an actuator that drives the steering rack and controls the turning angle, and the system relies on three electronic control modules. There is no physical link between the steering wheel and the tires, although there is a clutch that engages as a backup should something go wrong. The technology was pioneered by NASA in the early 1970s, and it is widely used by commercial and military aircraft.
By-wire steering offers notable benefits, including direct, quick steering feel and the potential to reduce the car’s weight because there is less hardware. No bumps or ruts are communicated from the pavement to the steering wheel, because there is no physical connection. As with start/stop technologies and in-car infotainment systems, consumers face a learning curve with by-wire steering.
Since the Q50’s introduction, the by-wire steering has been flogged by the enthusiast press and has been met with confusion by some consumers. To its credit, Infiniti wasn’t about to stand pat as one of its most crucial launches in years -- and a very good car in nearly every other aspect – was so roundly criticized.
“We heard the feedback,” Infiniti vice president Michael Bartsch said.
As a result, the company is introducing a software fix that will adjust the steering feel when sport mode is selected, which is what has spurred the most controversy. Bartsch is quick to note that this is not a recall. Instead, he calls the move a “technology update.” Existing customers can bring their cars to dealerships for the update, but it is not covered as a warranty item.
The company’s quick response is reminiscent of the way Honda handled criticism of the 2012 Civic. That car was shredded in early reviews for its cheap-looking interior, and the company responded by quickly announcing an update for 2013. (Honda points out the car sold well regardless of the negative reception, though later admitted that it misgauged the market.)
Not wanting things to get that far, Infiniti has said that software updates are already being programmed into cars that will begin arriving on dealer lots early in 2014. It should be noted that the software only applies to Q50s with steer-by-wire, and even then it only affects the sport setting.
“Your movement in the steering wheel and the response that you’re getting back is different,” Bartsch said.
He later added, “You move—it moves. We’ve now programmed it to allow for more of a transition.”
However, the steer-by-wire system is otherwise unchanged and could still seem foreign to drivers accustomed to traditional setups. Infiniti’s by-wire system is so direct that you can actually move your hands slightly later when turning the steering wheel to maneuver the car.
Infiniti is also adding a performance tire package with aluminum-alloy wheels, which engineers also think will improve the car’s handling.
It’s worth noting that Q50 buyers don’t have to get DAS. The Q50 is also sold with a conventional steering system that feels similar those in other premium sedans. Despite the controversy, the Q50 is off to a solid start, moving 2556 copies in October, which made it Infiniti’s best-selling vehicle for the month.
The Q50 is one of the more technologically advanced cars sold today, and with a wide-ranging suite of driver aids, it’s about as close to autonomous driving as you can get. Ironically, one could easily that argue those advanced systems – such as lane guidance or emergency braking -- can be turned off or not selected at all when you buy a car. Steering is more intrinsic. The launch of the 2014 Infiniti Q50 has illustrated just that.
“All of this sort of technology is about adapting,” Bartsch said. “You’re never a prophet in your own time.”