First spotted by the folks at Motor1, Ford filed the application in February of last year, and the patent was issued on Aug. 10, 2017. The description from Ford notes two challenges when completely removing the steering wheel. One is that the wheel typically houses the driver-side airbag. The second is "the lack of a steering wheel can handicap vehicle development by making it more difficult to place a vehicle under a driver's control" for evaluating a vehicle's response to "extreme dynamic maneuvers such as rapid lane changes."
While an attachable steering wheel and pedal set solves the development and driver preference issues, Ford's patent addresses safety concerns by putting an airbag in both the steering wheel and the dashboard, deactivating the dash airbag when the steering wheel is in place. The patent includes drawings of airbag deployment in both scenarios.
With the steering wheel attached, it can control steering either mechanically or electronically (steer-by-wire). Pedals can be controlled with a spring and gas damper, or use an electric actuator and software to simulate brake pedal resistance. The patent also states that the connection openings would be covered by trim panels to provide a "pleasing appearance" with the components removed.
With future regulations regarding autonomous vehicles still unclear, this patent illustrates a possible solution for a time when certain locales or driving scenarios would still require driver controls. It would allow Ford to build and deliver the same car to a customer who doesn't want a steering wheel or pedals, and to one in a country or state where the law places limits on self-driving cars.