Steering supplier JTEKT begins reinventing the wheel

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What will the world’s biggest steering supplier do in the coming era of autonomous driving, when cars will steer themselves and need no hands to hold the wheel?

It’s a question that Tetsuo Agata, president of Japan’s JTEKT Corp., has been asking. The Toyota Group supplier makes around a quarter of the world’s steering systems.

JTEKT is putting their focus toward next-generation technologies better suited for automated driving and advanced safety systems. Key to that push are redundancy systems and steer-by-wire technologies. JTEKT is planning on rolling out new products in the next few years as automakers move to semi-autonomous and fully-autonomous vehicles. Redundancy will improve the safety of autonomous cars, while steer-by-wire will make them more fun and easier to use.

Redundancy systems are the essential fail-safe backups that kick in to steer an autonomous car if the main system malfunctions. They enable the car to ensure it can drive safely on its own, while the driver zones out, reads a book or even takes a nap.

Steering needs software and hardware backups, Agata said. In software, autonomous steering systems need a backup circuit to fill in when the first breaks. On the hardware side, a second steering motor is needed to back up the first. Insuring that if or when one system or element fails another is there to ensure the safety of everyone.

JTEKT is working to develop such a system as early as next year to meet automakers’ goals of  autonomous vehicles in the 2020 time frame.

The other prong of JTEKT’s attack: steer-by-wire systems that break the mechanical link between the driver and the wheels. Instead, the systems convert steering wheel movements into electronic signals that control electric motors to move the wheels.

Autonomous cars don’t need steer-by-wire to function, but they benefit from it. The biggest payoff, Agata said, comes through design. A bulky steering wheel and cluster of meters are pointless in a self-driving car. Instead, the driver’s seat of tomorrow will be more of a mobile lounge. It would be a space where the owner can plow through computer work on a morning commute or lean back to watch a video.

That paints a picture of future vehicles with no steering wheels, or with steering wheels that fold out of the way.

“When autonomous driving comes, maybe the shape of the vehicle will change,” Agata said.

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