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What is a Steering Column?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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A steering column is a component of an automobile that controls the vehicle's steering as well as a host of other functions. The ignition switch, turn signals, and windshield wipers are all typically found on this column. A gear selector and cruise control are also found in this part of the vehicle. The majority of the steering column assembly is located underneath the vehicle's dash in the driver's compartment and protrudes into the engine compartment on the opposite side. The column is linked to the steering components of the vehicle's chassis by a series of universal joints and solid steel tubing.

There are several options available on a steering column such as tilt steering, telescopic steering and swing away steering. During the Golden Age of American automobile design in the 1950s, the steering column began to evolve as a featured component of the automobile and not just a utilitarian tool to steer the vehicle. Luxury items such as a steering column that would swing out of the way as the driver entered or exited the vehicle were offered. The tilt and telescopic options also made their debut in the late 1950s.

In an effort to compete with the European auto manufacturers, the 1970s found American automotive engineers placing headlight-dimming switches on the turn signal levers of US-made vehicles. Soon, features such as wiper controls and cruise control switches were making their way onto the steering wheel and turn signal levers. Plastic began to replace steel for safety reasons as well as economic reasons in the 70s, and the chrome adornments that were common on the steering wheel were replaced by less flashy components.

With the advent of the air bag, the steering wheel began to take on the role of a life preserver in addition to its role of controlling the vehicle. The column began to be wired with very critical air bag components, and gold-plated connectors were installed to improve the electrical contact between the different wires. A small explosive charge was placed deep within the steering wheel to propel the safety air bag in the event of a collision.

Advancements in technology changed the rigid steering shafts of the column to collapsible units. These new shafts will collapse in the event of a frontal collision instead of driving the steering wheel into the driver's chest. Many drivers have been spared from severe and life-ending injuries due to the installation of the collapsible steering column.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Logicfest — On Feb 04, 2014

I kind of miss the good old days when you couldn't find everything from headlight controls to windshield wiper controls on the steering column. It wasn't that long ago when the steering wheel column was where you drove you car, honked the horn, used turn signals and changed gears.

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