Mercedes-Benz has reinvented the steering wheel ... and it's no longer round.

The German car maker previewed its radical idea in the ESF 2019, a one-off showcase for future safety tech based on its current GLE. The big SUV, unveiled in Stuttgart last week, is a way for the company to promote its leadership in the field.

Claus Geisler, a strategy and innovation expert in Mercedes-Benz's integral safety department, says they're serious about putting the squared steering device into production.

Indicating the wheel and driver's seat in the one-off, Geisler says: "It might not come next year but that combination is something we are working on in integrated teams all over the company."

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The steering device is just one part of Mercedes-Benz's plan for the driving position of future cars.

Among what the company bills as its "holistic driver safety concept" are pedals that retract into the floor, redesigned airbags and steer-by-wire technology.

Steer-by-wire removes the mechanical connection between the wheel inside the car and those on the outside. The wires that replace the steering column send a signal when the driver turns the wheel and the steering computer directs an electric motor to move the front wheels accordingly.

For an autonomous car, one big benefit is that, in self-driving mode, the steering device can be shut down and retract into the dash. When the driver takes control, the steering device extends and reconnects with the front wheels.

Steer-by-wire tech doesn't need driver muscle to turn the vehicle.

"With a steer-by-wire concept we need less angle for turning the steering wheel," Geisler says.

"We do not need to grab over to get all the angle we need. With steer by wire we are more flexible."

If all the steering that's needed takes only half a turn, there's no longer any need for the steering wheel to be round. Or large. But downsizing means there's not room for an airbag in the reshaped steering device.

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Geisler says this is a good thing.

Today's steering wheel-mounted airbags have to be round, so it works the same regardless of how far the wheel is turned.

Switching to an airbag instead built into the instrument panel means it can be tailored precisely to fit the car's interior, and enlarged — each measure will improve protection.

A squared steering wheel would require an airbag redesign. Photo / news.com
A squared steering wheel would require an airbag redesign. Photo / news.com

The ESF 2019 has large airbags built into both sides of the driver's seat. These have been designed for protection even in extreme cases — for example, if the car is in self-driving mode, the driver has reclined the seat back to almost flat, and a tree crashes onto the road a metre ahead making a crash inevitable.

"What we also realise with that funny shape of the steering wheel, you get much better (vision) on to the displays," Geisler says.

"It's also creating comfort for the knees. You have more space."

Mercedes-Benz faces challenges with its weird wheel, he admits. Making steer-by-wire absolutely reliable is the biggest of them.

"That's an issue we have a group working on right now."