You’ve heard of fly-by-wire, now get ready for steer-by-wire. Soon, some cars will have no physical connection between their steering wheels and the road, thanks to a system Nissan has developed for its Infiniti luxury division.
Nissan did away with the traditional steering rack; its new system controls the direction of the front wheels through electronic signals only. It’s all about efficiency: electronics can react much faster than mechanical linkages, or the flesh bag in the driver’s seat.
Steer-by-wire can also be more precise than a mechanical system. The fly-by-wire system in a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber makes hundreds of minute corrections every second to keep it in the air; Nissan’s system does the same to keep a car tracking straight, which apparently requires the same level of technology as flying an inherently unstable triangular warplane.
Performance enthusiasts, who are still mourning the loss of hydraulic-assisted power steering, might become suicidal when they hear that their beloved steering racks have been eliminated all together. One of the most important (and enjoyable) parts of driving is feeling the road through the steering wheel, and steer-by-wire will cut that connection.
However, Nissan says its new system could actually make cars handle better. Since steer-by-wire eliminates the need for mechanical linkages, each wheel can be steered independently. This could make cars handle with more precision.
There are also reliability concerns. Electronics are not as durable as big pieces of metal, and no mechanic outside an Infiniti dealer is going to know how to fix these bits. Nissan says that, to ensure reliability, its steer-by-wire is controlled by two ECUs (electronic control units, similar to the ones that run the engine), so that one computer can serve as a backup if the primary unit fails.
Nissan could also be accused of trying to fix something that isn’t broken. While hydraulic-assisted power steering has given way to electric-assist, the standard rack-and-pinion steering system hasn’t changed in decades. People haven’t really been clamoring for a radical change in the way they steer their vehicles, so will they notice the difference?
Steer-by-wire systems have been talked about for years, but usually as part of a radical change in car design. General Motors included steer-by-wire on its AUTOnomy and Hy-Wire fuel cell concepts. They integrated all of their mechanical systems in “skateboard” chassis. Since the cars were unencumbered by the need for steering racks or engines, the bodies could take on any shape designers wanted.
The new Infinitis will have decidedly traditional packaging, so the feel of their steering will be its main selling point. We’ll have to drive a steer-by-wire-equipped Infiniti to see if the benefits of this new technology outweigh the increased complexity and loss of soul.
Fuel cells and skateboard cars might be a long way off, but steer-by-wire will arrive in showrooms within one year, according to Nissan. The 2014 Infiniti G luxury sedan and LE electric car will probably get the new system first.