For many of us these days - myself included - smartphones and MP3 players have taken the place of our car's built-in stereo system. More and more auto manufacturers are recognizing that fact, and are building compatibility with such devices into their vehicles. Ford's SYNC system, for example, can connect with an iPhone via Bluetooth and allow the driver to control music playback and make phone calls using either voice commands or the car's stereo controls.
Many of those systems are imperfect. With SYNC, for example, you can’t use voice commands to control music playback over a Bluetooth connection (though you can when connected via USB). Moreover, many cars don't have such systems. If you drive one of those cars, getting your phone or iPod's music onto your stereo requires a little extra work - an AUX jack, an FM transmitter, or a tape deck adapter. And then, once you get your phone hooked up to your stereo system, actually controlling music playback can be difficult, and even hazardous.
Apple, it seems, has a solution to that problem in the works. Yesterday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple a patent for a wireless, steering wheel mounted iPod/iPhone remote control that allows the user to control music playback, among other things. The patent covers a touch-sensitive rotating faceplate attached to a base that mounts to the steering wheel of a car by means of a pair of hinged (possibly spring-loaded) clamps. The rotating faceplate is intended to allow the user to put the remote wherever they want to on the steering wheel.
The remote's wireless functionality actually limits its use somewhat. Of the current line of iPods, only one - the iPod Touch - has built-in Bluetooth capability. While Bluetooth adapters exist that would enable the iPod Classic and iPod Nano to work with the remote, that would require an extra purchase from the consumer; unless, of course, Apple starts building Bluetooth functionality into its new iPods, which is always a possibility.
As with any patent, this should not be treated as an indication of what Apple has coming down the product line. All we can know at this point is that Apple is exploring the possibility of a remote of this kind. On the other hand, there are precious few remotes of this kind on the market, and one made by Apple for Apple products is bound to be popular. That being the case, don't be surprised if you see this hit the market at some point in the future.