When the steering wheel is a computer

When the steering wheel is a computer

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

Each team designs its steering wheels individually, taking into account the respective drivers’ preferences. Porsche drivers have 24 buttons and switches in direct access – plus six paddles at the rear side of the wheel. The device is a proof of the quadrature of the circle in that this wheel is not circular but rather a flat rectangle. In the centre of the wheel. a large screen displays various types of information such as speed, gear currently engaged and charging status of the lithium ion battery – because the WEC racing car has a hybrid drive whit an electric motor that drives the front axle and thus complements the two-litre four-cylinder internal combustion engine which drives the rear wheels. The battery status informs the driver about the amount electrical energy that can be called up to boost the overall power, for instance during passing manoeuvres.

The thumb wheel in the right grip handle dims the display brightness – essential during the night. The identical wheel in the left handle sets the volume of the pit radio while the thumb wheel at the top of the left grip selects the information displayed on the screen, and its pendant at the right side varies the interval timing for the windscreen wiper.

Fig. 1: The steering wheel of Porsche’s WEC LE Mans Prototype car. For full resolution click here.

The buttons and switches on the steering wheel were carefully positioned to facilitate reliable operation at racing pace and ensuring the short reaction times. The most frequently used buttons are positioned along the top outside edge, so they are easily reached with the thumb. The blue button at the top right which is almost always in use, is the headlamp flasher, used to warn slower vehicles in the WEC field before they are lapped. When pushed once, the headlamps flash three times. In daylight, the drivers keep their thumb on it almost permanently, as the headlamp signal is more difficult to perceive at that time.

The red button at the top left is also used very frequently. Its purpose is to activate the additional boost from the electric motor. It provides a lot of additional horsepower but drivers must keep the limitations in mind since the amount of energy per lap is specified. The yardstick is one lap in Le Mans, where maximum six megajoules are available. The amounts are converted accordingly for shorter circuits. The amount of energy a driver uses in the middle of a lap to get free of the traffic will not be available at the end in the straightaways.

A bit further inside on the right and left are the plus and minus keys to adjust the front and rear traction control and to distribute the brake balance between front and rear axle. These buttons – in yellow, blue and pink – are not used quite as frequently.

The orange buttons further down operate the drinking system for the driver (on left) and put the transmission into neutral (on right). The red button at the bottom left is for the windscreen washer, the red one on the right side activates the cruise control to restrict the speed in the pit lane.

At the top centre, there are the green buttons for radio communication (on the left) as well as the OK button on the right. Drivers use the latter to acknowledge they have executed a setting change, which was requested from them via the pit radio. For these settings, they use the rotary switches, and usually only in the straightaways as they need to pull one hand out of the steering wheel grip for this purpose.

The two rotary switches called ‘Multi’ correspond with one another. The left one (amber) is available for ABC settings, the right one (green) selects numbers. Programmes for engine management or fuel management are designated by combinations such as A2 or B3. Three other rotary switches are available to pre-select the brake balance, set the traction control for wet or dry conditions and the hybrid strategy.

To make the switches easier to recognise in the dark, their colours are fluorescent and respond to a black light lamp above the driver’s helmet.

Fig. 2: At the reverse side of the steering wheel, one easily can identfiy the six silvery paddles, three on each side.

On the reverse side of the steering wheel, the drivers can reach six paddles with their fingers. The centre paddles are used for changing gears – pulling the right paddle is for upshifting, and pulling the left paddle is for downshifting. The lowermost paddles operate the clutch and their function is identical on either side. Depending on whether the driver just entered a right or left curve, he can decide which side is easier to operate. The paddle at the top left operates the boost; whether the drivers use this paddle or the button described on the front is purely a matter of preference. The drivers use the paddle at the top right to initiate manual energy recuperation. This feels like a slightly engaged hand brake and supplies the battery reservoir with electric energy gained from kinetic energy.

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