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Bring-your-own-steering-wheel? A possible post-pandemic future for bus drivers

23 July 2020 #Bus and Coach #Features & Interviews #TNB News

A British company at the forefront of the design and manufacture of steering systems for commercial vehicles has seen interest in its latest concept – a detachable steering wheel for buses – surge during the coronavirus pandemic.

West Midlands-based Pailton Engineering first developed the concept to raise awareness of the unhygienic conditions faced by bus drivers, with multiple drivers using the same vehicles and making frequent contact with the same touch points.

Now though, with interest in the idea having spiked following COVID-19, the company, which supplies many of the industry’s biggest players from its plant in Coventry, is looking to bring the product to market.

This week, TNB caught up with Roger Brereton, Head of Sales at Pailton Engineering, to find out more about the concept, how it would work and how likely we are to see it appearing on buses in the future.

TNB: Tell us a bit about the background to the detachable steering wheel concept, why were you already working on it pre-COVID-19 and what was the interest like prior to the pandemic?

RB: We’ve long been aware of a couple of major issues facing bus drivers, including unhygienic conditions, and so we have been working on several design concepts to address these.

We first developed the detachable steering wheel concept because bus cabin environments can be surprisingly unhygienic. Simply wiping the wheel with disinfectant is not an ideal solution because that will degrade the material that the steering wheel is made from.

We showcased the concept at the Busworld show last year. Part of us doing so at the time was as much about raising awareness of the issue and testing to see how the concept would be received. There was quite a lot of interest and enthusiasm for the idea from OEMs, trade bodies and unions alike.

Tell us about the concept. How does it work, what technology is involved and could the steering wheel incorporate other controls?

It 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/nut engagement of the steering wheel to the column shaft.

We used existing knowledge of serrations interface and quick release mechanisms and adapted them to be part of the steering wheel.

The concept allows all controls to be done with the existing vehicle set-up and, if required, features such as gear changes and indicators can be added to the steering wheel.

How would you see the concept working in reality? Would drivers each be issued with their own wheel to take home or would they collect a sanitised wheel when they arrive at work?

The idea would be for each driver to have their own steering wheel that they would be able to take to and from work. You might have heard of ‘bring your own device’ to work (BYOD) before. The detachable steering wheel fits in with that broader idea. However, if bus operators wanted to do things slightly differently and maybe keep clean steering wheels at the depot for collection at the start of each shift, there would be nothing stopping them.

What interest have you seen in the concept since the pandemic struck?

We developed the concept before the pandemic. At the time we knew it would be valuable in helping stop the spread of germs where drivers are involved in constant shift changes. Obviously with the pandemic, that becomes an even more worthwhile benefit.

Interest in the design has undoubtedly raised in line with pandemic measures. However, the design concept is still in its early stages, and detachable bus steering wheels won’t be implemented in buses overnight. This could offer better sanitation in the future, should we see a similar situation.

Do you see the product going into full production? If so, when do you think that might happen?

The regulations will need to catch up to this new idea, but theoretically, this product could be a reality in two years’ time. As with any novel concept, it will take the early adopters to implement it first, prior to taking it into full production.

Can you give us a bit of background the business? What’s the main nature of your work, how many people do you employ, where are you based?

We specialise in providing steering wheel systems for a range of sectors, including commercial vehicles and the military. We have a reputation for design flexibility and providing non-standard parts to help vehicle manufacturers meet different design specifications. This is particularly important for vehicle OEMs working with non-standard or custom chassis designs.

We are based in Coventry but we have customers all over the world.  We currently have 150 employees and last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary as a company.

Are there any other COVID-19 related solutions you’re working on?

While we haven’t created any other concepts for COVID-19 specifically, we have looked even closer at driver conditions, and the promotion of driver health.

We currently have a very exciting project underway, which is an electric steering column. The steering part uses Bluetooth to automatically adjust the steering wheel position, based on which driver has entered the cabin.

This will prove very useful for shift changeovers, as it ensures all drivers are in an optimal position for health without time-consuming manual adjustments.

Roger Brereton – Pailton Engineering

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