Volvo is leveraging by-wire technology to develop a system that allows the steering wheel, the instrument cluster, and a host of switches to slide from one side of the interior to the other. It's a clever invention that turns the definition of the driver's seat on its head, and the Swedish company was recently awarded a patent for it.
Published in September 2020, the patent describes a "vehicle having multiple driving positions" thanks to a steering wheel that's mounted on a rail that stretches across the entire width of the cabin. That means the driver can sit on the left side of the car, like in most countries, or on the right side of it, like in Australia, England, and Japan, among other nations. Oddly, someone could even choose to sit in the middle of a front bench seat.
Looking ahead, Volvo added that sliding the steering wheel out of the way can allow users to enjoy more space when they're traveling in a semi-autonomous car. For example, if you're stuck in traffic, you could bump the steering wheel out of the way and read a book while a properly-equipped car navigates the bottleneck on its own. It's far easier and cheaper than designing a concept car-like steering wheel that retracts into the dashboard.
Making this technology work would require replacing all of the vehicle controls with by-wire components; it's not as science fiction-esque as it sounds. Infiniti has notably used steer-by-wire technology for years, and brake-by-wire is slowly spreading across the automotive industry. Acceleration-by-wire is so common that's it's mundane. The digital instrument cluster and the various light-related stalks could simply slide with the steering wheel.
As for the pedals, Volvo explained they could be replaced by pressure-sensitive pads, hydraulically- or pneumatically actuated sensors, or something else entirely. Either way, they'd be installed in both front footwells, and the system would automatically activate the ones located on the side the steering wheel is on.
Volvo hasn't commented on the patent, and it certainly hasn't announced plans to put the technology described by the documents in a regular-production car in the near future. It's a cool feature, but it's important to keep in mind that it often takes years for something described in patent filings to end up in showrooms. What remains to be proven is that engineering this system with an eye on mass production and getting it approved by regulators around the world would cost less than building different cars for right- and left-hand-drive markets.
Splitting the difference
Carmakers have often tried to engineer their way out of having to manufacture left- and right-hand-drive cars, or at least make the conversion as cost-efficient as possible. Part of the reason why the original Mini's speedometer was installed in the middle of the dashboard rather than behind the steering wheel was because it could stay there regardless of where the driver was sitting. It was later placed in front of the driver, but it returned to the middle in the first BMW-developed model released in 2000. McLaren's epoch-shaping F1 put the driver front and center for a multitude of reasons: improved visibility, a better driving position, and no market-specific layouts.