If you love a steering wheel festooned with handy buttons, and even if you don't, this might be the steering wheel for you.

Engineers at the University of Stuttgart in Germany have been hard at work on a new prototype steering wheel that takes interaction with your car to a new level. You may think that directing your car is task enough for any wheel, but in the future you may be able to control other functions, too.

The prototype wheel uses a touch-screen interface, little different from the one you'll find on your satellite navigation device or smartphone. In contrast with those tiny screens though, the touchscreen wheel is, well... wheel-sized.

The wheel is constructed from clear acrylic a little less than half an inch thick, ringed with infrared LEDs. Drivers can use simple gestures on the screen to control functions, and if you currently use any touchscreen tech then you'll pick it up right away - pinching zooms in (on a GPS map, for example), a sweep will move the screen and tracing shapes executes certain functions too - a triangle for "play", for example.

Computer science professor Albrecht Schmidt explains: "If you have gestures on the steering wheel, you spend more time looking at the street". The new wheel could eliminate the usual distractions of trying to operate "infotainment" equipment on the center stack.

The technology could even be combined with head-up displays and augmented reality windshields so that your actions on the touch display could be confirmed in your line of vision for extra safety.

The team hasn't just considered the "active safety" aspect of keeping your eyes on the road, either. Passive safety such as airbags could still be fitted, as the touch surface could be made thin enough for an airbag to break through.

Production readiness is a little way off just yet, but with touchscreen tech improving all the time it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see it become part of your steering wheel in the future. It could completely change the concept of a car's interior.

"Somebody in the '30s decided it's good to have the instruments behind the steering wheel," explains Schmidt. "It may be time now, having entered the computing age, where we have to rethink if it's very clever to hide one display underneath controls."

[Discovery News]