Everything You Need to Know About Steering Wheels

Updated: Mar. 03, 2021

Steering wheels seem simple on the surface, but there's a lot more to them than meets the eye. Find out more about function and options here.

The function of a steering wheel is obvious at first glance, but there’s more to steering wheels and steering systems than meets the eye. They’re part of a machine that’s gone from being simply a way to get from A to B to something that offers entertainment, navigation, prestige and even self-driving capabilities. As the complexity of vehicles has increased, so have the steering wheels inside them.

What’s the Function of a Steering Wheel?

Obviously, a steering wheel and the system it connects to primarily controls the direction of a vehicle. It converts rotational commands of the driver into swiveling movements of the vehicle’s front wheels. The driver’s movement passes through a series of joints and hydraulic lines in the steering system, ultimately reaching the rubber as it hits the road.

Modern steering wheels also often have accessory functions built in, such as cruise control, audio system selection and volume. Some steering wheels are even electrically heated.

Main Parts of a Steering System

Although not all automotive steering systems are the same, rack-and-pinion is one of the most common. In this design, the steering wheel attaches to a shaft (called a steering column) that connects to a rack (a long metal component with serrated teeth that links the two front wheels together). The steering column and rack are joined with a gear wheel called a pinion.

Most vehicle steering systems also include some kind of power-assist to make it easier for the driver to turn the steering wheel, i.e., power steering (anyone who has driven a pre-1970s vehicle knows how helpful this is!).

Power steering uses a belt-driven, hydraulic pump that pressurizes power steering fluid. The pressure ultimately assists the mechanisms and allows tires to turn more easily when a driver directs the steering wheel.

Steering wheels can become broken or torn, and the controls on the wheel can sometimes stop working. If you hear any unusual noises when turning the steering wheel, or you feel unusual resistance, take your vehicle to a licensed mechanic right away.

Steering Wheel Adjustment Systems

Over the years, different approaches have been used to allow the position and angle of steering wheels to be adjusted. Although all steering wheels do the same basic thing, there are differences in comfort, adjustability and style.

Tiltable Steering Wheels

First introduced by General Motors in 1963, tiltable steering wheels offer different angle positions along a wide arc. An adjustable joint just below the steering wheel allows for this feature, without affecting the location of the steering column. Although this type of wheel was only available in luxury cars initially, it’s become common in all kinds of models today. These days many cars have steering wheels that tilt.

Telescoping Steering Wheels

Telescoping steering wheels are similar to tiltable wheels in adjustability, except that telescoping systems offer a range of heights. In contrast to the wide, multi-position arc of a tiltable wheel, telescopes can be adjusted to an infinite number of positions within a three-inch range. Although this doesn’t sound like much, most drivers don’t need more. You don’t see telescoping steering wheels in all modern cars, but it’s not rare either.

Swing-Away Steering Wheels

Introduced by Ford in 1961 in its classic Thunderbird, the swing-away steering wheel offered additional driving comfort in an innovative package. It allowed the steering wheel to be moved nine inches to the right when the vehicle was in park, making it easier for drivers entering and exiting the car. Though you won’t see these in new cars, the swing-away has become a kind of legendary feature, highly prized by collectors.