- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

The components that make up the interior of a car, such as the steering wheel, radio, even key fobs, all have to be designed by somebody. Most of us don’t really stop to think about that, since we are usually mesmerized by a car’s exterior. If we do stop to think about it, we might think, ho-hum, boring.

Before he got into this area of interior design, Michael Thomas wasn’t much different from you and me in that regard.

“I might have been guilty of the same misconception,” said Thomas, creative designer in the Component Design Strategy Center at General Motors.

“You don’t think of it that much, which is kind of ironic considering that’s what you interact with the most,” he said. Thomas, age 30, designed the leather-wrapped steering wheel for the 2008 Cadillac CTS.

“There are a lot of opportunities to do interesting things with the interior by focusing on the details,” Thomas said. “And that’s the draw of the components. It’s almost like being a jeweler. You are getting down into the intimate details that people are going to get up close and personal with. Sometimes that will have a bigger, lasting impact on someone’s impression of the brand.

“Every day if you are driving to work you are going to be in the car and interacting with it. You are going to be touching everything in there and you are going to have to be able to interface with it. It’s a big challenge but also kind of exciting.”

Thomas’ boss, Stuart Norris, design manager for Global Corporate Components at GM, says the steering wheel is really the “handshake with the car.”

Steering wheels are incredibly complicated these days. And with all the function control buttons they have to accommodate, they have become almost a “surrogate” for other features inside the car.

“The fact that it steers the car is almost neither here nor there,” Norris said.

Although Thomas was the designer, he worked with a multi-disciplinary team on the steering wheel. If you are like me, you wonder how it could take a “team” to design the steering wheel.

“Design plays this umbrella role, where we take the requirements of human factors, manufacturing, safety, packaging and pull those together into a useable design that telegraphs a single message,” said Norris.

Customers really love steering wheel controls, Norris said. “They love the fact that they don’t have to take their eyes off the road to change a radio station.” So when it comes to designing the wheel, they focus on putting the most frequently used controls onto the steering wheel and then use human factors engineering to make sure that they are logically laid out and easy to use and reach.

“You don’t want customers to find they are accidentally hitting buttons and activating buttons when they shouldn’t.”

Incorporating the buttons into the steering wheel is one of the biggest challenges aside from the airbag, said Thomas. “But by working with a Human Factors Specialist you get a good understanding of how many buttons you can fit on the spokes that are going to be comfortable and useful to the driver.”

Craftsmanship is important, too. That means any gaps have to be tight and buttons can’t be wobbly, Thomas said. In addition, the steering wheel has to relate visually to the rest of the interior and be something that the customer wants to interact with.

If it isn’t enough that the steering wheel has to house the airbag and accommodate all the functions, it also has to be an ambassador for the brand, Norris said.

Thomas said he started by evaluating other products on the market that convey the feeling of luxury. Because the steering wheel was going to be wrapped in leather, he drew on the elements and materials that make the leather in a purse look and feel high-end.

Because consumer electronics, such as cell phones are hand-held and interactive, he tried to incorporate the kinds of materials that people associate with high quality into the design.

“For something like the CTS you really want to emphasize luxury and quality. It becomes critical to iron out things like the materials and the fit and finish, so that when the customer is handling it, it feels like luxury and it feels like quality,” Thomas said.

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