A patent filed with the US Patent Office hints that Volvo may be exploring a system of by-wire controls to allow steering, braking and accelerator controls to switch sides.
While a patent application isn’t any assurance of a production reality, it does show the Swedish brand has an interest in protecting the intellectual properties surrounding a sliding rail-type control system.
Within the application Volvo describes it suitability for either border crossings where a vehicle is manually controlled, allowing the driver to switch from left-hand drive to right-hand drive, along with self-driving situations where the controls can move out of the way of front seat occupants.
In the simplest of terms the steering wheel would be attached to a rail running the width of the dashboard. Instead of a physical connection to the steering rack, steering would be electronically actuated, allowing the steering column freedom of movement.
The concept itself certainly isn’t a new one, as far back as 2002 General Motors famously showed a working prototype of a similar sliding system, on its hydrogen-fuelled Hy-Wire concept, perhaps best known for its appearance on the BBC’s Top Gear in 2003.
The Volvo patent application describes numerous set-up possibilities, with a full with display panel in the dash that can be used to show relevant driving into ahead of the driver, or a screen that slides with the column to take the gauges with it as it slides.
Pedals would also follow a by-wire format, with electronic brake and accelerator controls mounted in sensor pads as part of the floor mat, offering a set of unobtrusive controls to both front seat occupants.
There’s allowances for a sliding column with fixed front seats, or a system that allows the front seats to be moved side to side. The latter offers a strong hint of a potentially more autonomy-friendly reconfigurable cabin where seats can be rearranged more freely, with controls that can follow suit.
For this setup, multiple floor controls can be activated as needed, and gear selection can be either via column mounted lever or switch, or like the steering, a rail-mounted sliding console.
A multi-airbag dash and roof (shown with dotted lines in the diagram below) means no occupant goes unprotected, with an optimally placed steering wheel air bag (and the deactivation of the supplementary bag behind it, presumably) also on hand to minimise injury in the event of an accident.
While the system allows the freedom for controls to move out of the way during autonomous driving, it also provides interesting opportunities, like allowing a passenger to take full vehicle control in an instance where a driver is suddenly incapacitated.
Ultimately though, Volvo, like many other brands, has its eye on high-capability autonomous driving with minimal need for human intervention, and the ability to move out of the way of occupants for more space and comfort when operating autonomously would be a primary system goal.
Recognising that some situations, like parking where spaces aren’t clearly defined, or that owners may simply like to take the wheel from time to time, allows the autonomy to co-exist with familiar vehicle control systems.
Any eventual production version could look vastly different from the diagrammatic representations shown here, but if nothing else, they do provide a snapshot of what Volvo has in mind for an increasingly hands-off driving future.