Motoring: Cars without steering wheels?

It's not such a mad idea. By Gavin Green
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Cars should have five wheels, one of which you hold. This is a fact, just like oranges are orange, apples are round and Gazza is a fruitcake. The only motoring apostate of recent has been Reliant, whose cars mostly have only three wheels in contact with the tarmac. But when you drive a Reliant, you realise that the old adage does hold true. And the more you drive a Reliant, the clearer the message.

A hundred years ago, there were no motoring "rules". Because car makers had nothing to copy, they were forced to innovate and experiment. Some car makers tried tricycles. And others, believe it or not, didn't have steering wheels.

In last weekend's Brighton Run, restricted to cars made before 1905, most of the vehicles that spluttered and farted their way through London and down to the south coast used tillers to steer. I drove one, an 1899 Fiat. We didn't get very far: a distributor problem sidelined us on Brixton Road, barely three miles from the Hyde Park start. But our London to Brixton run proved one thing: tillers are a surprisingly sensible way to steer a car.

Mercedes-Benz, the world's oldest car maker, thinks so too. It has just unveiled a concept car called the F200 which dispenses with a wheel and instead uses an aircraft-style joystick.

On the old Fiat, the tiller is actually one of the easiest controls on the car. On this car, you hold a little handle on the tiller. You turn the handle the way you want the car to go, the tiller revolves and, presto, you change direction. The steering is sharp - much sharper than on most modern cars which suffer from appallingly mushy steering response. It's also light, helped by the car's low weight.

The Fiat's other controls aren't so easy. While your left hand works the tiller, the right has to grapple with the hand throttle, the gear lever, the hand operated brake, and levers to control the engine's fuel mixture and the ignition timing. The Fiat's overriding safety feature is that you will never fall asleep behind the tiller: there's so much to do all the time that you never get bored.

One of its novelties is its "total loss" oil system. There is no recirculating oil supply. Instead it is either burnt or discarded. The upshot is that every four miles or so you have to stop, to top up the oil. It is not so much a total loss system as a dead loss system. It also makes for very slippery roads and very dirty exhausts.

The Fiat is also slow. Its little two-cylinder engine, vibrating away under your bottom, is good enough for a top speed of about 30mph. In practice, it's not that comfortable over 20. The upshot is that, from London to Brighton, a push-bike would be quicker. So, for that matter, would a horsedrawn carriage. You sometimes wonder how cars ever caught on.

One thing that did catch on was the steering wheel. It replaced the tiller for a number of reasons, not least that more leverage could be had with a big revolving wheel and a geared steering box than with a simple stick. Nowadays, all cars have steering wheels. Why? They just do. It is an example of the simple unquestioning conformity that has blighted the car industry and made it so conservative. That's why Mercedes' proposal is so refreshing.

Wheels are actually silly ways to steer, given modern electronics. First and most important, they are potentially dangerous. In bad accidents, many people die from head juries incurred by hitting steering wheels. The airbag has partly obviated the problem, but only partly. Much better to do away with the steering wheel altogether.

Mercedes' joystick electronically controls the steering. Push right to turn right, left to turn left - simple. The joystick also replaces conventional pedals. To go faster, push the joystick forward. To brake, pull it back. Deleting conventional brake and throttle pedals is another safety boon. Pedals can cause horrific foot and leg injuries in severe accidents. They're also incredibly indirect and clumsy ways of controlling going and stopping.

The joystick also serves up more comfort for the driver. The lack of pedals means that the seating position can be more comfortable, especially for the feet.

There's also a big versatility benefit. The joystick is in the centre console which means that either the driver or the front seat "passenger" could drive the vehicle without changing seats. There are also "side sticks" in the F200 - joysticks in the interior door trims on both sides of the car, although to my mind this is unnecessary complication. Other advantages of the joystick include speed of response - braking is immediate, as there's no time delay in moving your foot from one pedal to another. And, as there is no mechanical connection between the steering and the suspension, wheel vibrations and movement do not corrupt steering feel.

There are many other clever, clean-sheet ideas on F200 - Mercedes' vision for a 21st-century car. They include swing-out-and-lift doors which give much better access to the cabin, headlamps which change illumination with speed and can see around corners, a magnetic card instead of door and ignition keys, a glass roof for superb all-round visibility (electrochromic glass stops sun intrusion and prevents the cabin from getting too hot) and rear vision from five mini-cameras with the images appearing on dashboard screens.

All are refreshing ideas, but the joystick is the cleverest. Of course it would take some getting used to. But what great idea hasn't? The technology is new to motoring, some of it borrowed from aerospace (the steering is in effect "drive by wire", as with the latest Airbus). The tiller-like joystick idea, however, goes back to the dawn of motoring. Which just goes to show that sometimes the old ideas are still the best ones.

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