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Steering Column Switches And Sensors In 21st Century Vehicles

As security, safety and convenience have become increasingly important to today’s drivers, the steering wheel has become the primary interface between car and driver.


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The modern steering column houses a wide array of electronic controls and functions, placed at close reach for convenience as well as safety. As security, safety and convenience have become increasingly important to today’s drivers, the steering wheel has become the primary interface between car and driver.

The increasing value of the average automobile over the years has made anti-theft security an important selling feature, and brought along with it the need for “smart” keys, wireless technology and other anti-theft features. Parts stores used to carry a wider variety of ignition lock cylinders, complete with a new set of keys. It was simpler to replace the cylinder and keys as a matched set, rather than attempting to re-code a new cylinder to match the existing keys. The only trade-off was that the new key didn’t match the door locks, unless the customer wanted to purchase a complete matching set. (For all the ignition cylinders I have sold over the years, I can only remember a handful of requests for matching door lock sets.)


These days, replacing an ignition lock cylinder is more complicated. The relatively high cost of “chip keys” with either resistor or wireless anti-theft technology, and the need for dealership programming after key replacement, makes it more cost-effective to re-code an aftermarket lock to match the existing expensive OEM keys. In this case, many aftermarket suppliers will offer the lock cylinder, tumblers and housing in a kit. If your store offers key-cutting services, you also may have an aftermarket “smart key” supplier, offering cost-effective OEM-style key blanks. Either way, the aftermarket is making more and more options available to replace lost, broken or worn keys and locks for these newer systems. When selling these security-enhanced kits, be sure to explain any additional steps (such as reprogramming or PCM re-learn functions) required to make the lockset function correctly, so the customer isn’t left with a non-functional security system and an immobile vehicle. These same precautions apply to replacing the electrical portion of the ignition switch, as well as the lock housing and even the PCM.


For many modern vehicles, replacing a multifunction switch, ignition switch or lock cylinder also requires the removal of the steering wheel, airbag and clockspring. In addition to specialized tools, these repairs also require additional safety precautions when working with the airbag, its wiring, connectors and clockspring. Some manufacturers have incorporated the clockspring and multifunction switch into one unit, referred to as the steering column control module (SCCM). Because of the multiple components included in these modules, cataloging becomes very specific regarding options like cruise control, headlight and fog lamp controls, and wiper functions.

The function of the clockspring is to maintain electrical continuity to the airbag, horn and other steering wheel controls through the full range of wheel travel. It also may incorporate a steering angle sensor, which monitors the driver’s steering inputs, and provides this information to stability and traction control systems. Correct assembly and alignment of these components during reinstallation is critical for proper operation of the vehicle’s airbag system, and mishandling may result in either accidental discharge of the airbag or its non-deployment during a crash.


The aftermarket offers a wide variety of steering column electrical components, as well as the specialized tools to service them. Because of the security and specialization of these components, many steering column fasteners feature tamper-resistant designs. Stocking these security bits can be just as important to your DIY customers as having the correct switches and sensors on your shelves.

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