As we collectively endeavour to stay safe in public spaces, public transport is one area where innovation is required to limit the potential spread of coronavirus. Here, Roger Brereton, head of sales at steering systems specialist Pailton Engineering, tells the story behind the development of the detachable steering wheel and how it might be used to improve safety conditions for bus drivers.

At Busworld in October 2019, in a world that now seems more than a mere ten months ago, we showcased a prototype for a new design of steering wheel. The detachable steering wheel was unlike any other product on the market for bus manufacturers and we wanted to gauge the opinion of manufacturers and industry bodies.

We had long been aware of two major issues facing bus drivers: unhygienic conditions and musculoskeletal injuries. To address the latter, we have been developing an electric steering column which uses Bluetooth to automatically adjust the steering wheel position. Each individual driver can then enjoy his or her optimal position every time they enter the bus cabin, reducing the risk of back and neck injuries.

To improve hygiene in bus cabins, we developed the detachable steering wheel. Bus cabins are sometimes unhygienic environments. Scientific studies have found steering wheels are four times dirtier than a public toilet seat. This problem is compounded in buses, where regular shift changes are the norm.

Simply using disinfectant wipes and sanitisers is not a viable solution, especially as these wipes and the chemicals they contain degrade the material the steering wheel is made from.

Our engineers had the idea that each bus driver should have their own steering wheel that they could bring to and from work. This idea fits in with a wider trend toward bringing your own equipment to work, sometimes known as ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) to work culture.

The engineering behind the design comes down to the mechanical engagement of the steering wheel to the steering column, with an easy and quick to release mechanism, instead of the conventional taper, serrations and nut engagement of the steering wheel to the column shaft.

Our team of design engineers used existing knowledge of serrations interface and quick release mechanisms and adapted them to be part of the steering wheel.

When we first showcased the concept last year, we helped raise awareness of some of the issues faced by bus drivers and were please to find our ideas greeted with enthusiasm from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), trade bodies and unions alike.

We could not have foreseen at the time the impact of the impending coronavirus pandemic, the challenges it would pose for public transport and the further threat it posed to driver safety. However, the potential benefits of the detachable steering wheel now clearly exceed what we had originally envisioned.  Interest in the design has certainly raised in line with pandemic measures.

Theoretically, this product could be a reality in approximately two years’ time. However, the concept is still in the design phase and detachable steering wheels will not be implemented over night. The regulatory environment would also need to adjust.

The concept has lots of potential to be taken even further, such as bringing in all controls onto the portable wheel. If required, features such as gear changes and indicators could be added to the steering wheel.

As with any novel concept, it will take the early adopters to implement it first, prior to taking it into full production. This innovation might have arrived too late to help tackle the current pandemic wave, but the detachable steering wheel may well become part of our new normal on public transport in the years ahead.

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