Motoring: Will the joystick take the joy out of driving?: Roger Bell surveys an initiative designed to take motoring into the 21st century

DRIVING a car without a steering wheel is like facing Wasim Akram without a cricket bat. You feel helpless, daft. The steering wheel is such a basic accoutrement, so familiar as a means of directional control, that to steer by any other means is unthinkable.

Saab, however, has come up with an experimental alternative that consigns it to the past. Ahead of the driver in a specially adapted 9000 automatic is a conventional dashboard carrying normal instruments. Instead of a familiar wheel, however, there is a central joystick, similar to those used in aircraft.

Joystick control is rooted in Saab's research into intelligent or 'active' steering systems - one of the projects it was assigned under the pan-European Prometheus programme, a collaborative quest to improve the road-users' lot by exploiting modern electronics and telecommunications. In an industry notorious for contrived acronyms, Prometheus is a horror. Search hard and you will find it in Programme for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety.

Specifically, the goals of Prometheus, funded by governments (one-third) and industry (two-thirds), are to make road vehicles and driving safer, easier, cleaner and quieter. New technologies could improve road safety by 30 per cent in Europe, say the Prometheus boffins.

Some projects, such as the joystick Saab, are intriguing. Others might cause disquiet among motorists who see their freedom under threat. Fancy driving along a motorway nose-to-tail, like carriages in a train, under 'hands-off' computer guidance? Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC) is nothing short of automated motoring, promising tightly packed car convoys that make the most of the available road space but do nothing to promote enjoyable driving.

Several manufacturers are working on the technology central to ICC. A Jaguar/Lucas radar system, for instance, maintains a safe distance from the vehicle ahead by automatically working the accelerator and brakes.

Saab's research into active steering looks promising, even though joystick control is years away from production. To eliminate the steering wheel and its spear-like column is to reduce the risk of chest and facial injuries in serious accidents. Air-bag protection is much easier and cheaper to install if there is no steering wheel to get in the way. An unencumbered fascia is also better for presenting information - and drivers of the 21st century can expect a lot of that. Where better to put your satellite route-finder screen than in front of you? Providing drivers with more and better information - on traffic congestion, roadworks, accidents, bad weather and so on - is central to the Prometheus traffic-management programme.

With active steering, extraneous forces acting on the car - those caused by wind gusts and tricky cambers, for example - are relayed to the driver by sensors and an electronic brain that make the joystick (or steering wheel) feel 'alive'. The stick is gripped in your right hand, leaving the left redundant. The switchgear normally deployed around the steering column has been displaced; the indicator stalk is on the door and the horn on the dash.

The joystick adjusts in and out with the seat, and your hand is steadied by an elbow rest. To turn right, you tilt the hand-grip to the right. To turn left, you tilt it the other way. Nothing could be simpler. Shuffling a steering wheel requires far more movement, effort and skill.

Like some conventional power-assisted steering systems, response to stick movement is speed sensitive - the faster you go, the heavier and less responsive it becomes. But parking is kid's stuff, the front wheels flicking from lock to lock with a twist of the wrist.

Unique though it is, Saab's joystick is less revolutionary than the technology behind it. There is no reassuring mechanical link between the stick and the front wheels. Instead, there is a steer-by-wire system not unlike the fly-by-wire control of some modern aircraft.

Under the Prometheus umbrella, supported in Britain by Ford, Jaguar, Peugeot Talbot, Rolls-Royce and Vauxhall (Rover is not involved), Saab is also pioneering, in collaboration with its arch-rivals Volvo, the use of ultraviolet (UV) headlights, unseen by oncoming drivers and therefore non-dazzling. The trouble with UV light is that it reflects best on pigmented surfaces, so markings, signs and roadside hazards would need special treatment.

In another line of development, Jaguar, GEC and Pilkington have equipped a car with an infra-red camera that can penetrate fog. The driver sees what is ahead on a television monitor. Other members of the 'vision enhancement' group investigating different techniques include Renault, Peugeot, Fiat and various component suppliers.

Saab expects ultraviolet headlights to go into production in the mid-Nineties, followed by advanced navigation systems that dispense with the need for maps - although Ford's satellite alarm system (SAS), which can pinpoint a broken-down (or stolen) car to within five metres, is likely to reach showrooms first. Fully active joystick steering is for the next millennium, along with most other Prometheus projects.

Motoring in the future may be safer and less stressful, thanks to Prometheus, but it is also in danger of becoming more boring. Next time you are trapped in a tail-back behind a caravan, remember Prometheus. Didn't Zeus condemn him to a terrible death?