Some of Nissan's luxury lineup, specifically elements of the Infiniti, is set to get an interesting new option included in their makeup within the next year. Specifically, Nissan is planning to change over some of its Infiniti models from mechanical steering to electronic steering, a move that will open up several new and interesting possibilities in cars.
Basically, in most currently-released cars, and a staggering proportion of older cars, the link between the steering wheel and the tires is a mechanical one, which in turn allows the driver to learn more about the road conditions by way of the simple expedient of feeling what's happening to the tires through the steering wheel. Switching that over to an electronic system removes that bit of feedback, but instead takes the feedback from the tires, converts it to electronic signaling, and passes said signal on to an actuator that adjusts the tire positions.
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It's worth noting that the cars in question will boast a backup clutch, specifically geared toward making a mechanical connection in the event that something in the line fails. This is always at least something of a risk with electronic components, especially when subjected to extreme weather conditions. Having that backup is important, but since the electronic components also provide some unusual benefits of their own, it's a system likely worth considering on other vehicles as well. An electronic system could mean that the steering wheel can be placed anywhere in the vehicle, even the back seat, and in some cases, new kinds of control methods like joysticks could be included instead of the standard steering wheel.
Perhaps most importantly of all, electronic steering could clear the way for more self-driving vehicles since the system of lasers, cameras and radar scanners that comprise most self-driving car systems would be able to more readily interface with an electronic steering system.
While much of what Nissan is looking at here is more of a luxury than anything else--improved response time notwithstanding--it may be the start of something else. Something with a much greater impact in terms of the way we interact with vehicles on a daily basis.
The benefits of self-driving vehicles are readily present--drunk driving, distracted driving, and any driving that's less than optimal all become things of the past--but will still require plenty of time between where we are now and the wide-scale commercial use of such systems. Still, given the additions to safety and improvements in aesthetics, Nissan's move to electronic systems will likely prove well-received.
Edited by Brooke Neuman