Nissan to try unconventional steering

Within a year, Nissan hopes to replace the mechanical method of controlling steering with one that uses electronics.

Nissan will soon be the first automaker to mass produce cars equipped with so-called steer-by-wire technology. It plans to roll out the technology in its luxury Infiniti line.

The automaker’s move is part of larger industry trend toward cars utilizing various technologies that fall under the umbrella of what’s called "drive-by-wire."

A turn of today's steering wheels physically move the car wheels mechanically. In steer-by-wire, the steering wheel is linked with a computer that turns the wheels, kinda like a video game controller.

TORC Robotics is a firm that grew out of the engineering program at nearby Virginia Tech. It uses drive-by-wire to develop unmanned cars. TORC software engineer Jesse Hurdus says bringing computers into the loop enables them to gather information that helps the driver.

“These computers can take that [information] in and react to it and control things to actually improve our ability to drive, as well as keep bad things from happening,” Hurdus says.

At its most futuristic, drive-by-wire can enable driverless cars and even cars controlled directly by our brains, but the question is how consumers will feel about it.

“I think there will be some initial hesitation,” says Edmunds Editor Ed Hellwig, “but that’ll probably be overcome by the improvements that the technologies deliver.”

Those improvements have already been delivered to and accepted by pilots. Nissan hopes what works in the sky will succeed on the road.

Mark Garrison: Turn your steering wheel now and it physically moves the wheels mechanically. In steer-by-wire, the steering wheel is linked with a computer that turns the wheels, kinda like a video game controller.

Jesse Hurdus: Once you make it all electronic, it really opens up the possibilities for all sorts of things.

Jesse Hurdus is an engineer at TORC Robotics. It uses drive-by-wire to develop unmanned cars. Once a computer is in the loop, it can gather information and help you. Hurdus says this can make driving easier and safer. At its most futuristic, drive-by-wire can enable driverless cars and even cars controlled by our brains. But the question is how consumers will feel about it. Edmunds Editor Ed Hellwig is optimistic.

Ed Hellwig: I think there will be some initial hesitation, but that’ll probably be overcome by the improvements that the technologies deliver.

Those improvements have already been accepted by pilots. Nissan hopes what works in the sky will succeed on the road. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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