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?

Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballLive: Latest news from Champions League draw
PROMOTED VIDEO
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are...

    Scrum Master (Agile, Java, team recruitment)

    £45000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Scrum M...

    Junior Asset Manager

    £25000 - £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Junior As...

    HR Generalist (standalone) - Kent - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist / HR Officer (standalo...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?