Retractable steering wheel and pedals patented by Apple for Level 4 autonomous car

Apple has been granted a patent for a retractable steering wheel and pedals in a car, when it is being used in self-driving mode.

The patent document describes a car which is capable of driving itself in some situations, but not in others – which seems a likely interim stage for both the technology and the law …

Specifically, Apple suggests that a car may be able to drive itself fully autonomously in the relatively simple environment of a multi-lane highway, but still need to be driving manually on city streets.

Traditional passenger vehicles include driver input devices for receiving driver inputs to control motion of the vehicle. Typical driver input devices include a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal, and a brake pedal for receiving the driver inputs that include steering, accelerator, and brake control inputs, respectively, from the driver.

With ongoing development of autonomous driving systems, driver inputs may not be required to control motion of the vehicle in at least some circumstances, whereas driver inputs may still be required or desired in other circumstances.

For example, driver input may not be required while driving on a highway with adaptive cruise control systems. whereby accelerator and braking inputs are automated to accelerate and slow the vehicle according to radar-based sensing of other vehicles, and with lane-centering systems, whereby steering inputs are automated to maintain the vehicle in a lane.

Depending on the autonomous driving systems that are available on a given vehicle, driver input may still be required in other circumstances, such as in congested or less-controlled environments (e.g., in urban areas, or may otherwise be desired, such as when the driver simply prefers to manually control motion of the vehicle.

Counter-intuitively, the opposite may be more likely. There are cities where it is legal for fully autonomous cars to be used, without the need for a human driver to be even in the vehicle, but those cars rely on incredibly detailed mapping of defined roads within a defined geographical area.

This is what is known in the industry as Level 4 autonomous driving, or High Automation.

The vehicle performs all driving tasks under specific circumstances. Geofencing is required. Human override is still an option.

It would in principle be possible to create a Level 4 car which is geofenced to highways, and this has been discussed, but isn’t what we have seen so far.

One big limitation with Level 4 cars is, because they aren’t capable of autonomous driving everywhere, you still need conventional manual driving controls. That limits the flexibility of the interior layout of the car, compared to the complete freedom of a Level 5 car where the interior can be more like a lounge than a car.

This is the issue Apple’s patent seeks to address. By having the pedals retract into the floor when not required, and the steering wheel retract into the dash, that creates greater flexibility for seats to pivot and recline. It also increases safety by ensuring that a passenger can’t accidentally interfere with the car’s driving.

The same idea can be seen in this Audi concept video, where a flat steering wheel assembly slides out from a slot in the dash, and automatically unfolds. (Patents are for specific solutions, rather than ideas, hence more than one company being able to obtain patents for the same concept.)

As ever, our usual patent disclaimer applies: Apple patents way more things than ever make it into production. All the more so for automotive patents, as it still remains clear whether there will ever be any such thing as an Apple Car, or whether we will simply see partnerships with existing car brands to incorporate Apple tech into their vehicles.

Via Patently Apple. Concept image: Audi.

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Ben Lovejoy