Nissan has announced plans to install a "steer-by-wire" system in certain Infiniti models within a year, marking the first time the technology has been used in production cars.
While a normal steering system connects the steering wheel and tires mechanically, "steer-by-wire" sends electric signals from the steering wheel to a computerized control unit that uses an actuator to move the tires.
At first, Nissan plans to guard against glitches by installing a backup clutch that will link the steering wheel and tires mechanically in the case of a system failure, according to a Reuters report. Eventually, though, the automaker hopes to do away with the mechanical link altogether in order to take advantage of the unique packaging and alternate control systems that the technology makes possible.
"In the future, if we are freed from that, we would be able to place the steering wheel wherever we like, such as in the back seat, or it would be possible to steer the car with a joystick," said Masaharu Satou, a Nissan engineer.
The "steer-by-wire" system promises numerous other potential advantages, Nissan says. It can make steering easier for the driver by eliminating unnecessary road feedback, and, due to the speed of its electric signals, it can respond to driver inputs more quickly than a normal system.
On the safety front, the system could theoretically eliminate the need for a steering column, which can be an impediment to crash safety.
Additionally, "steer-by-wire" can be linked with active safety systems that use radar, laser scanners and cameras to detect and autonomously steer away from impending collisions.
"We are thinking about the essentials -- what kind of a tool should cars be for humans? By controlling its hands and feet, as well as the eyes and the brain, cars are on its way to becoming an extension of robots," said Tetsuya Iijima, a Nissan engineer
No word on which Infiniti models will get the system.
Nissan's implementation of the new steering technology comes amid an industry-wide shift away from traditional hydraulic steering setups towards electric power assist steering (EPAS). While they typically lack the road feedback associated with hydraulic units, EPAS systems save fuel by using an electric motor to facilitate steering in place of an engine-driven hydraulic pump.