BMW is looking to patent a steering yoke that would replace a conventional wheel with two small grips.
First spotted by CarBuzz, an application filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) describes a "steering handle" with grips that remain vertical at all times, attached to a single horizontal spoke that rotates around a central hub. That should make its operation much like that of a conventional steering wheel, in theory.
What's the point of a steering yoke that looks different, but works like a conventional wheel? The application text notes that "further installation space can be gained by way of a steering handle" in place of a steering wheel, so that may be the main benefit. It also looks like the grips can fold up when not in use, freeing up even more space.
Such a design could be especially beneficial in future autonomous cars, where the steering wheel may not be in use much of the time. Numerous concept cars have featured fold-away steering wheels as a way to free up more space when a vehicle is in autonomous mode.
However, the exact use case BMW has in mind is unclear. As with all auto-industry patents, BMW hasn't confirmed plans to use its steering handle in a production car, and may not have any. Automakers often patent tech without concrete plans to use it in production vehicles. Sometimes it's just a way to prevent rivals from copying their ideas.
Tesla has already introduced a steering yoke in the Model S and Model X, a move that's proven controversial. Unlike BMW's design, Tesla's yoke is essentially a conventional steering wheel with the top half removed. When Tesla started delivering yoke-equipped cars to customers in the middle of last year, negative comments about the yoke's awkwardness quickly poured in. Perhaps reinventing the wheel wasn't a good idea.