Audi shows new steering wheel design for the Q4 e-tron

A unique new shape for Audi’s upcoming BEV SUV, and yes it features touch sensitive panels with multiple functions. Plus: Insight into Audi’s wheel design through the ages


Audi has revealed an all-new steering wheel design that will grace the upcoming Audi Q4 e-tron and SQ4 Sportback e-tron. The new design integrates 18 functions onto a black panel keypad surface, which the brand claims will be fully intuitive for drivers to operate and be used without distraction.

The design likely sets the tone for other upcoming models in the Audi range, including the petrol powered cars. 

Audi draws attention to the fact that the steering wheel design is no longer round or even flat-bottomed; it’s almost rectangular with a flattened top and bottom section.

The brand notes that the design, “gives the interior a more futuristic effect, emphasizes its progressivity, and facilitates getting in and out of the vehicle.”

Actually, Audi isn’t the first to get in on the act. Current-generation Peugeots have been using small, octagonal steering wheels for the longest time.

However the new Audi design will have a greater axial offset than the industry standard. The rim is 7.5mm above the steering wheel hub, which Audi claims optimises the driver’s view of the controls, space for getting in and out of the vehicle, and the rotation characteristics of the steering wheel.

But we’ve all had our struggles with touchscreens in cars, from the piano black surfaces of the Porsche Panamera  to the clever, better integrated tech of the current Audi A4

Yet the designers at Audi claim that they have properly cracked the code of intuitive useability. The new Audi steering wheel touch panel features small bumps that form an outline between the touch screens making them easier to use than a textureless surface. When a person touches the screen with a finger, the system registers an action and gives haptic feedback only when the driver gently presses with a certain force. It’s the same technology as in the Audi MMI touch in the current-gen centre consoles. 

A panel that is activated via a pressure point recognises the finger position, then there is a mechanical clicking sound upon activation. Once the driver acclimatises to the feel, the driver can quickly get oriented intuitively using his or her sense of touch, or so Audi claims. 

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has touch panels up the wazoo – but are they easy to use in real life?

Apart from touch, there are also swipe movements, for instance for scrolling through navigation, media, and vehicle function menu lists. It’s integrating technology into the steering wheel that we already know from smartphones and tablets, though the proof will be when it goes into production. 

The Physics of Steering

The steering wheel has evolved from a tool for changing direction into a full-on digital control panel. Just look at the amount of dials and buttons on a racing car’s steering wheel these days. But how did we get here and what influences the design of the largest control surface in a car?  

The earliest cars were steered by a simple steering lever or handle bar. Of course, steering was anything but precise that way. The first practical steering wheel design was credited to French engineer Alfred Vacheron who experimented with putting a steering wheel on his car’s tiller in 1894 for the Paris to Rouen race. 

An Audi steering wheel from 1986

The steering wheel has developed in tandem with the car itself. The introduction of hydraulic power-assisted steering allowed them to be turned with less effort, and they could be made smaller as the leverage from a large wheel was no longer a necessity. In 1991, the driver-side airbag became standard and the first on-wheel buttons were also introduced.

A steering wheel from 1996 with horn, driver airbag and control buttons

The designers at Audi have revealed that the standard size of the brand’s steering wheel rim is 375mm in diameter, and the present rim profile design is slightly oval to correspond to the contour of a closed palm. The rim houses circuitry for capacitive grip recognition and steering wheel heating in some cases. 

Steering wheel 2021 from the new Audi Q4 e-tron

The bias of the steering wheel is between 17 and 24 degrees, depending on the vehicle type. SUVs have a more laidback wheel bias while sportier models have steering wheels angled more steeply in the driver’s direction. In general, the recommendation is that there should be about 25 to 30cm distance between the driver’s upper body and the steering wheel and the driver’s arms should be bent slightly.

about the author

Lionel Kong
An old hand from the bad old days of crazy COEs, the straight-shooting, ex-CarBuyer editor is back in the four-wheeled world. Rumours that he went to another country to start a Judas Priest tribute band are unfounded.