I Sing the Wheel Electric

Why have cars stopped talking to us? Much of the blame has been laid upon electric power steering. Compared with its hydraulic predecessor, the electric power steering rack has more internal friction, which can blanket inputs from the tires. It's also daunting to tune, typically featuring some 400 to 500 computer-adjustable parameters. Finally, interactions with other components can vary, so a car with a great-feeling hydraulic setup might not be very satisfying if electric steering is retrofitted.

Merely blaming new technology, though, ignores the whole picture, including the fact that there is no shortage of bad hydraulically assisted systems. Power assistance is but one part in an incredibly complex system. "It's hard to imagine all the things that affect steering feel," says Rick Kewley, a GM engineer who worked on the current CTS. Wheel alignment, tires, and structural rigidity come into play, as do myriad minor suspension adjustments. "If you change rear damper tuning, you affect steering feel; if you change the rear stabilizer bar, you affect steering feel," Kewley says.

All that work chases sensations most drivers won't notice or, worse, will reject as nervousness or heaviness. "The reality is most customers are seeking cars that have low steering efforts," says Acura spokesman Chuck Schifsky. That's nothing new -- nearly every American car from the 1950s through the 1990s reflects these tastes. What's changed is that electric power steering, with all its tunability, allows engineers to banish noise without sacrificing control.

Even when steering feel is wanted, it often takes a back seat to more pressing priorities like safety, efficiency, and all-out speed. Hard-compound, low-rolling-resistance tires save fuel but transmit very little from the road. Safety technologies like lane-departure prevention often send odd feedback to the wheel and sometimes countermand driver inputs. So do go-fast aids like torque-steer mitigation and artificially enhanced on-center feel.

This combination of technology, tastes, and priorities is what results in cars like the latest Porsche 911 and BMW 3-series. They perform better than ever, yield better fuel economy, and are easier to control. And yet, the connection to the driver's palms, the essence of what made these cars so rewarding, has diminished.

The good news is that all of these factors can be overcome. Take, for instance, the excellent electric power steering on the Tesla Model S. Malcolm Burgess, who worked on its development, credits the structure and components of his car, as well as hours of driving and computerized tweaking (easier, he notes, than swapping out dozens of torsion bars when tuning hydraulic power-assist systems). But what's most important, he says, is a clear vision. "It's a bit of our philosophy: we're not trying to achieve good electric steering; we're trying to achieve good steering."


Reinventing the wheel
The first horseless carriages were fitted with tillers, like many boats of the time. Nevertheless, steering wheels became the industry standard shortly after the turn of the century. Despite half-hearted experiments with joysticks and oddball shapes, steering wheels still follow the same basic template -- a circular ring attached by spokes to a central hub. This isn't to say that there haven't been technical and aesthetic advances along the way. Here are some noteworthy waypoints in the march of progress. -- Preston Lerner

1. The utilitarian four-spoke Ford Model T steering wheel helped establish the wood rim for the Brass Era and decades beyond.

2. Banjo-style wheels, popularized in the 1930s and still used in postwar MGs and others, cushioned drivers from the shock of unassisted steering.

3. Thin, hard-plastic steering wheels with inset horn rings -- this example is from a 1959 Pontiac -- were defining features of postwar American iron.

4. The Nardi wheel, with its elegant wood shape, burnished the legend of the 1950s Mercedes-Benz Gullwing and other imported sports cars of the era.

5. Most steering wheels are so conventional that an outlier like this single-spoke Citroen DS21 wheel looks not just different but positively weird.

6. First-generation airbags posed aesthetic challenges that the designers of this 1980s-era Cadillac wheel obviously failed to overcome.

7. Today's Ferrari 458 Italia marries the shape of aftermarket Momo wheels with buttons, switches, and shift paddles, as found in Formula 1 cars.

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