Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Steering Wheel Controls Work

Advances in Steering Wheel Controls
The Audi R8 has its fair share of steering wheel controls, too.
The Audi R8 has its fair share of steering wheel controls, too.
Photo by Kristen Hall-Geisler

As electronics have become smaller, cheaper, and more popular in passenger vehicles, advances in steering wheel buttons have taken driving safety even further, too.

First, the issue of the lowered cost of the necessary electronics has made steering wheel controls more common. This, by itself, improves auto safety across the board -- for everyone on the road. If more drivers are able to pay extra attention to driving and less to reaching for the radio or fumbling for their phone, they have a better chance of reacting to split-second situations that could otherwise lead to accidents.

Cruise control has been available as a steering wheel button operation for some time, but advances in the cruise control system itself make this a high-tech piece of auto safety. In some cars, when cruise control has been set (using a button on the steering wheel, of course), sensors on the front bumper adjust the speed of the car to provide a cushion of time and or distance between your car and the one in front of you on the highway. It's commonly called adaptive cruise control, and although not every new car comes equipped with this advanced feature (not yet, anyway), most steering wheel-mounted cruise control functions include up and down buttons for adjusting the speed of your car manually.

The new Ford Fusion Hybrid is an example of a very advanced set of steering wheel controls that interface with its SmartGauge on-board computer. The dashboard in front of the driver consists of two LCD displays with a traditional speedometer in the center. Depending on the amount and type of information the driver wants to see, he or she can use the dedicated steering wheel controls to find power usage, battery life, fuel economy and more. This is in addition to the Microsoft voice-activated SYNC system, which can also be accessed from the steering wheel. So it's getting easier and easier to follow Jim Morrison's advice to "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel."

If you'd like more information about steering wheel controls and hybrid cars, follow the links on the next page.