What's better than a steering wheel?
May 9, 2013 4:17 AM   Subscribe

Steering wheels are an odd invention: a round object that you rotate clockwise or anti-clockwise based on whether you want to move a car left or right. The rotating of a wheel doesn't really match up with what you are trying to accomplish (unless you're used to it).

We have them today because we've had them for years, but if cars were invented today, what would make more sense than a steering wheel to control car direction?

i.e. what mechanism would make more sense in linking the direction of the car to a physical controller?
posted by devnull to Travel & Transportation (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Drive-by-wire with joysticks is an option, but I don't think that's any more intuitive than a steering wheel. Another option is tank-style steering.
posted by empath at 4:22 AM on May 9, 2013

I'm not sure why you think it doesn't make sense. You move the steering wheel in a direction, and the front tires turn in that direction, and so does the car. In reverse gear, the back end of the vehicle turns in the direction you turn the wheel. You're confusing the issue by calling "right" "clockwise", but you need not think of it this way - to turn right, you move the wheel to the right.
posted by thelonius at 4:33 AM on May 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

Thought control.
posted by keasby at 4:34 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

The rotating of a wheel doesn't really match up with what you are trying to accomplish

However, it does match up with the way rack and pinion steering works. So I think the form of a steering wheel is due to the mechanical function it performs.

If you're talking about cars being invented today, do you mean with all the mechanical developments and advantages of the 21st century, or are we starting around a Model T level?
posted by dubold at 4:35 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's all about minute analogue control of the direction you are steering, nothing beats the steering wheel.
posted by Akke at 4:36 AM on May 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

There's a reason I end up stuck in a corner every time I play a video game, and it's because joysticks and arrow buttons and even wii controllers aren't as intuitive/sensitive to minor adjustments as a steering wheel.

You turn the wheel a bit to the left, the car goes a bit to the left. You turn the wheel a lot to the left, the car turns a lot to the left.

Honestly, unless the car is going to drive itself, there really doesn't seem to me to be a way that makes more sense than the steering wheel.
posted by phunniemee at 4:41 AM on May 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Are the minor adjustments of a steering wheel better than a joystick, because a joystick hasn't been deployed in millions of cars and had the improvments which that could bring?

If you're talking about cars being invented today

If you were to choose a steering mechanism for a car, and didn't have the historical baggage of the steering wheel, what would you create?
posted by devnull at 4:43 AM on May 9, 2013

I have steered cars with joysticks (in games), and it's fine for quick movements, but not for wide corners.
posted by Akke at 4:51 AM on May 9, 2013

I'd probably have two levers, each like parking brakes, on either side of your seat.

To turn left, you raise the right lever. To turn right, you raise the left lever.
Only one lever can be up at a time.

Hands down by your side seems like a more natural position to me.

Oh, and the reason you raise the right lever to turn left is because of banking. It is intuitive. you sort of turn your body to the left to go left. And as you make a steep turn, your body turns in a way so as to correct the turn and stabilize you, just like a steering wheel does.

Also, this is not an entirely new thing. Its the way many small pleasure boats work where the two levers are actually controlling the rudder.
posted by vacapinta at 4:56 AM on May 9, 2013

devnull: "Are the minor adjustments of a steering wheel better than a joystick, because a joystick hasn't been deployed in millions of cars and had the improvments which that could bring?"

Nope. The range of motion on a steering wheel is much greater than on a joystick. If you made a joystick that could rotate 360 degrees or more, then voila: you've invented the steering wheel.
posted by Grither at 5:01 AM on May 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

You also have to figure out how to manage the all important drive-competently-with-your-knees-for-fifteen-seconds because let's be honest--that happens a lot.
posted by phunniemee at 5:06 AM on May 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

If joysticks or levers or what have you were actually better, modern F1 cars would have them. I think one of the problems with levers and joysticks is that it'd be very easy to accidentally bump a joystick and now you've careened into a quarry. You have to apply a lot of rotational force to a steering wheel to turn your wheels fully. bumping it does nothing.
posted by duckstab at 5:07 AM on May 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

To clarify: you don't want to be able to fully turn the wheels on your car by accidentally bumping a joystick vs rotating a steering wheel a couple times. The steering wheel has a greater range of motion, so you don't accidentally turn your wheels all the way left or right, which is something you definitely *don't* want to do at highway speeds.

There is a reason why the brodie knob is also called the suicide knob.
posted by Grither at 5:07 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

A steering wheel has a distinct advantage because if its range of motion. It has, potentially, more than 360 degrees of input, and stays in the same position relative to itself, it simply turns. At most a joystick has only, what, 180 degrees of motion, 90 in each direction? More than that and you're flipping it upside down. And it changes physical position while turning, which is annoying. Consider also that if someone hits your steering wheel there is a relatively small chance that it turns, and if it does turn it's a small amount of change. If someone hits your joystick even 10 degrees that's going to be a large amount of change.

With a joystick the amount of turn per radial degree is much, much higher than a wheel. That means a much coarser amount of control and you don't want that with a box of metal at 60 mph.

Lastly, a steering wheel IS more intuitive because it imitates a car's motion on a different plane. Car goes in circle, wheel turns in circle.
posted by InsanePenguin at 5:07 AM on May 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Automobiles adopted steering mechanisms from the only other man-directed form of transportation...boats.

Many early autos had tiller mechanisms.

Quickly, though, the steering wheel appeared, based largely on this tried-and-true mechanism.

The wheel allows much finer control over direction and course correction.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:07 AM on May 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

Part of the reason a steering wheel works so well in fast-moving vehicles is that it's big and beefy enough for the driver to pull against, stabilizing his or her body against the sideways forces imposed by the change of direction. Smaller controls like joysticks, knobs, levers, etc. can't be used this way. If the forces of the turn move the driver to one side of the other, moving their shoulders and changing their arm and hand position / orientation, that could cause them to change the position of the steering control unintentionally. A novel control that creates a need for a 5-point harness probably wouldn't go over too well.
posted by jon1270 at 5:07 AM on May 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

A steering wheel offers feedback. You turn the wheel and you can tell that your wheels are turning. The gear ratios are such that you have to rotate the wheel at least one time in order to turn your wheels their maximum amount. This allows for more detailed graduations in your turning. It's forgiving.

The one reasonable alternative is handlebar style steering where you can tell exactly which way your wheels point by the angle of the bar (or wheel - a 1 to 1 analog is what I mean.) This is the way the wheels often work in monster tricks and giant equipment. Even jetways, I think. The benefit (knowing exactly which way your wheels are pointed without seeing them and without moving) is not much of a benefit in a car, and the 1 to 1 thing is fiddly and precise, and that is great for intentional Driving and drivers, but less great when you are looking for ease and comfort and the ability to look out the window etc etc etc.
posted by dirtdirt at 5:10 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Steering wheels allow you to quickly and easily transfer control between your left and right hands. Because steering requires constant adjustment, the ability to share the work between your hands is very important for long drives.

As for giant centrally located joysticks: I wouldn't want one pointing at my chest when I was driving down the highway at 60 miles per hour.
posted by alms at 5:19 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: didn't have the historical baggage of the steering wheel

It's not so much historical baggage, though, as a direct function of the mechanical system and the leverage required to turn the wheels. You'd only be able to hit a fresh page approach if you were completely fly by wire - ie no mechanical connection at all between the wheel and the wheels. I think the issue here is you are seeing the end result (car moving to the left or right) and not seeing turning a wheel as logical. This is the element of your argument that is flawed, I think, because if you consider how a car actually steers, it is completely logical, which is why it was evolved into when cars were being born and also why we still use it in racing where ANY slight advantage would be leapt on. As mentioned, if there was a better control mechanism for steering than the wheel, F1 cars would have it. NO question.

To turn the steering wheels, you are moving a (hinged and complicated but I am simplifying) straightish bar connecting arms on the front wheels across the car. There is what amounts to a direct link of fixed length between the two wheels so that the left and right wheels always move the same amount. This is very, very important for steering control at speed. So you can't lose that mechanical link without fundamentally losing a very important part of control of the steering wheels even before you get the driver involved - from a geometry perspective, they must turn together.

See here for an excellent picture explanation.

So to steer your car, you need to move a horizontal bar left to right. You need to have very fine control of small movements at high speed (or you'll crash) and also be able to make large movements quickly (parking, city driving, emergency corrections). You also, when you are pushing the car harder, need to be able to reliably give the steering wheels a set input (ie reliably put 10 degrees of steering lock on in an instant, then switch to 10 degrees the other way, for instance).

That's a hell of a range of control requirements. Also, again when we are talking performance, you have to have a direct link between the control mechanism and the steering road wheels so that the driver can understand what is happening - when you wheel goes light to tell you you are sliding/understeering/aquaplaning/have hit oil/changed road surface, those important bits of feedback are only possible because you have a direct mechanical link (albeit with some power assistance in most cars) between the control mechanism and the tyres.

A horizontal bar (or maybe even a pivoted two-bar system like Vacapinta suggests) would seem to be the only thing that gives you anything approaching the range of movement required to have linear response between steering input and road wheel movement. Any system that has a lag (motors turning the steering rack against an electrical input) would be impossible to control at speed as the lag would be an instant crash causer. However, the levers couldn't possibly move far enough to give you the range of fine control (how far do you move your wheel on the highway compared to parking?) and if you don't have a direct link, you have lost all feedback from the car (which is much more of an issue than perhaps you realise). I've driven cars (on track and on the road) that have too much power assistance and the lack of feedback is very disorientating. I saw people drive the same car and have trouble maintaining a consistent steering course because of the lack of any kind of feedback. Boats aren't so much of an issue - put in steering angle and wait to see if it works. You can't do that with a car.

So to turn the road wheels to steer the car you have to control lateral movement of a horizontal bar (the control of the steering wheels and tyres) the most logical way (in fact pretty much the only way) to turn it precisely (and also over a large range of motion) is a rack and pinion. So you need to rotate the pinion one way or the other. The simplest way of doing that is to give the driver a stick that is connected to the pinion directly and have him turn the other end. Hence the most logical means of connecting it is a wheel and steering shaft. The wheel can rotate about 900 degrees (450 deg each way) which means that small wheel movements give very very precise control at high speed, but the wheel can be spun fast at lower speeds (assuming assistance) to make corrections or tight negotiations in city/parking etc.

It is completely logical and has, as been noted, evolved into rather than something that no-one has ever thought about and came about by accident. This is why I think your logic is flawed - you're only seeing the resulting movement of the car and finding a logical disparity with turning a wheel. If you consider the car itself (road wheels needing to twist in harmony on their suspension) then the wheel suddenly makes perfect sense.

Also, the control mechanism is always in the same place. Any lever will not be. You can control it with either or both hands. It doesn't encroach on any of the cabin space while using it where a large lever necessarily would unless you drastically lost fine control. No other mechanism makes sense to me unless you drastically cut the control or feedback to the driver.

Part of the reason a steering wheel works so well in fast-moving vehicles is that it's big and beefy enough for the driver to pull against, stabilizing his or her body against the sideways forces imposed by the change of direction.

I don't buy that as justification of the steering wheel. To use the wheel to hold yourself against even slightly is a loss of control. That's why we have 6 point harnesses in racing cars and moulded seats (and better side support in sports car seats) - to hold the driver still so he isn't swinging on the wheel. It's a limitation of the system at high lateral loads, not an advantage.
posted by Brockles at 5:37 AM on May 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

You might want to check out the GM Hy-Wire "Skateboard" car.

There's no mechanical steering or throttle linkage. Each wheel has its own independent electric motor, and the car turns by changing the speed of the tires individually. It's all "drive-by-wire" and, IIRC they have experimented with different control systems, though I'm having trouble googling that up at the moment, and all the test drives I've seen have involved a not-quite-traditional steering "wheel"—still a thing that you turn clockwise or counterclockwise. Probably because it would be dangerous / intimidating for test drivers to have to adapt to a different system, I guess.
posted by BrashTech at 6:28 AM on May 9, 2013

If you want to consider non-intuitive steering. On a motorcycle, at speed, to turn towards the right you turn the front wheel to the left by pulling on the left handle bar (or pushing on the right).

Compared to that, a steering wheel makes sense.
posted by HuronBob at 6:36 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you were designing cars today from a clean slate, and you took power steering on premise, I think you'd still end up with something like a steering wheel but the full lock-to-lock turning distance might be much smaller.

The only reason you can rotate a steering wheel more than one full turn is because you need that mechanical advantage if you don't have power steering. In other words, if you had a steering wheel or some sort of tiller that actually matched the direction the wheels were pointing, it would be very hard to turn. (Get out of a car on a flat parking lot and try to push the wheels around with your hands, if you want to see exactly how hard. It's nearly impossible without lifting the car up, because the tires have so much resistance.)

But if you have power steering, and the power steering system is assumed to be really reliable so that you can count on it (which I think effectively is the case today, because I suspect a lot of drivers would crash if they ever had a sudden power steering failure at speed, because they've never driven without power steering and wouldn't enjoy the sudden transition), then you could have a tiller or very short-throw wheel that basically just controlled the power steering system. You could arrange it so that the top-center of the wheel always pointed parallel to the front tires. To someone used to our current system this would be horrible, but it would eliminate the occasional confusion (mostly when parking) of figuring out whether the wheel is actually straight or is instead one full turn left or right.

To keep the car from being unstable at speed you'd want to make the whole arrangement speed-sensitive (less sensitive at speed) ... honestly I'm not sure it would be a very good system overall, but it could be done. Perhaps you'd end up with something more like F1 steering, rather than directly tracking the direction of the front wheels.

However, I think it's entirely possible that our current rack-and-pinion-derived steering interface is a fairly well-optimized thing, and that you'd probably end up reinventing it even if you started from scratch.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:43 AM on May 9, 2013

I think it's fair to point out that joysticks can be effective in very demanding cases, namely military fighter aircraft. They definitely are able to put the aircraft in a known attitude on command. True though that there is no feedback through the stick; there's much more "inertial" feedback to replace that. I'm not going to argue that this is actually applicable to a car, but understanding why the stick and the steering wheel can be effective in different cases is really interesting.

I think it's easier to decompose the differences with a somewhat less demanding case, such as the Airbus sidestick, which is also very effective. I think the principle difference is this: the Airbus sidestick commands roll rate (on non-FBW it would command aileron deflection, which is close to roll rate), which then requires some time for that to affect the aircraft's actual roll attitude. Once the roll is established it then takes time for the aircraft to actually change its heading, the rate of which is proportional to the roll, which is set by the length of time you've held the roll rate at a given value, which is proportional to the sidestick deflection. So to command a given heading you have a factor of sidestick deflection and two different time factors, each of which are on the order of seconds. A car's steering wheel is directly linked to wheel deflection, which is proportional to slip angle which over time changes the car's heading. Only one time factor there.

So my point is that the sidestick gets away with some of its lack of granularity with a time factor (length of holding roll rate), which does not exist on a car.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:47 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd make the interface like the segway.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:47 AM on May 9, 2013

If I had some sort of fantasy car design power where I could instantly replace all cars on the road with my design, then I would eliminate steering altogether and have some sort of smart car / rail system. A large central computer would route cars to their destinations while controlling for traffic. You could have people moving at very high speeds bumper to bumper because you wouldn't have a human driving it. You'd reduce fatalities, save on energy consumed, and drastically alter what 'insurance' means for car ownership.

Once you got to roads which weren't computer controlled, I'd have the cars themselves have onboard navigation to destinations with some sort of delimited speed so that any mistakes they might make would result in very minor consequences.

In the case where you actually did have to manually pilot the car, then I think I'd probably have a steering wheel which would fold down.
posted by codacorolla at 6:51 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

One control that hasn't been mentioned is the leavers on track vehicles like a bulldozer or tank. Two independent hydraulic levers that control the direction and speed of the tracks. Allows for very tight maneuvering but perhaps only for relatively slow moving machines. Actually some tanks go as fast as a car and I don't actually know how they are steered.
posted by sammyo at 7:21 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Actually some tanks go as fast as a car and I don't actually know how they are steered.

An M1 tank has a steering column that's similar to a motorcycle's handlebars.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:36 AM on May 9, 2013

I'd probably have two levers, each like parking brakes, on either side of your seat.

This prevents anyone with use of only one hand from driving and it also prevents two handed drivers from switching off between hands to give their hands a rest or just operate the gear shift/radio knob/window crank/wind shield washer/light switch/etc. Whatever mechanism one comes up with it must be operatable with either hand and for the most part with just one hand.
posted by Mitheral at 7:44 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

the historical baggage of the steering wheel

I think 'historical baggage' is an odd way to characterize over a century of motor vehicle development and evolution. As Thorzdad points out, early cars had tillers -- that's the steering mechanism with the baggage.
posted by Rash at 7:44 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is no end to the arguments among commercial pilots about the advantages and disadvantages of the steering wheel/yoke used on Boeing planes and the side stick used on Airbus planes.
posted by JackFlash at 8:47 AM on May 9, 2013

Here's one bad consequence of the steering wheel design that I experienced. I dropped something on the floor of my car. I was on an empty side street, rolling at low speed, looking for a place to turn around. I bent down to retrieve it, returned to vertical, and discovered that I was about to hit a street sign, which used to be to my right, but which I was now aiming straight for - I had turned the car about 45 degrees.

Sit down, hold your left arm out, and bend down to touch the floor with your right hand. Your left arm will naturally move over to the right with your upper body, which is fine, unless it is holding a steering wheel.

But this was more of a I-fucked-up thing than a design problem with the steering, and I am lucky I did not cause a worse accident.
posted by thelonius at 9:03 AM on May 9, 2013

There are a ton of examples in the literature of experiments with joystick control of automobiles and other wheeled vehicles. "joystick steering experiment" is one set of search terms that filled a few pages with links to PDFs of people exploring the human factors of joysticks.

Others in this thread have addressed problems with tillers. Somewhere I vaguely remember an interview with cast or crew of Knight Rider about how that car was actually difficult to drive because the aircraft yoke didn't easily let you do the hand-over-hand tight turns.

Aircraft, of course, use foot steering, as does any kid who finds a set of wheels and a few two-by-fours and puts together a gravity powered go cart out of 'em. Anyone who's had a foot injury and tried to drive a stick can attest that requiring two limbs simultaneously probably isn't a great idea.

In short: People have tried a lot of different things. Some of the joystick controls may be incrementally better than, or at least equal to, the wheel but they require a lot of learning, and those skills aren't transferrable.

I suspect that the next control system for automobiles will be a touch screen with a qwerty keypad, and maybe voice recognition with some touch screen confirmation in the high end models.
posted by straw at 9:26 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was briefly thinking about the idea of Segway steering (some sort of lean-to-steer mechanic) and I liked it at first, but then I started thinking: long drives are pretty painful anyway, and one way to relieve that pain is to shift in your seat. If you constantly have to have your whole body leaning to and fro to steer, then that's going to be exhausting and leave itself open to error through misinterpretation of a natural desire to shift your body weight for comfort.

This is another positive aspect of the steering wheel (especially with power steering): it's pretty low effort. Even a person without much body strength can steer and keep that direction held for a while. It's also easy to 'coast' if you're on a long straight-away, and since it only requires your hands you can move the rest of your body for comfort.

To take a step back from my completely computer controlled idea I posted earlier, maybe a steering option would be visual markers on the road (or RFID or something else which wouldn't be affected by rain or fog) which your car could mark and follow to hit turns. It would moderate for speed based on what's in front of you and what's allowed, and when you came to a decision point (let's say that one marker is a DP marker which occurs 2 miles before a decision point) you could hit a key in your car's console and it would take whatever path you'd chosen.
posted by codacorolla at 11:53 AM on May 9, 2013

You're confusing the issue by calling "right" "clockwise", but you need not think of it this way - to turn right, you move the wheel to the right.

When a wheel "turns right", its top moves to the right and its bottom moves to the left. That correspondence is conventional, and noting its arbitrariness is not confusing the issue.
posted by stebulus at 12:26 PM on May 9, 2013

"The one reasonable alternative is handlebar style steering"

Worth noting that if you rotate your handlebars 90° to the left and right while turning, they've just described a circle…
posted by Pinback at 3:22 PM on May 9, 2013

There's no reason a steering "wheel" has to be round, some cars have ones that aren't a full circle.

It's simply a convenient handle for rotating part of the steering system. Bicycles use handlebars for this. You could have a round wheel on your bicycle and bicycle handlebars for steering your car, but your knees would hit the steering wheel on your bike.

A round wheel is reasonably safe in an accident, at least with a collapsible steering column.
posted by yohko at 8:22 PM on May 9, 2013

The steering as-is is a safety hazard, but a good interface. Perhaps use a similar interface (a brody-knob steering-wheel down low to the side where a stick-shift might be, or maybe one for each hand, which means your arms are no-longer covering the airbags during intuitive operation, and so your hands are no-longer at risk of getting destroyed (and of also destroying your face) when the airbags detonate.

The best interface, of course, will be merely having to inform your google-car of your destination, then reading a book while eating your breakfast in the back seat while the car drives you there.
posted by anonymisc at 11:57 PM on May 9, 2013

The Spectrum C5 had handlebar-like steering located under your knees. It looks like it might be a fairly ergonomic approach. Obviously it would need years of evolution and fine-tuning to compete with the years of evolution and fine-tuning that steering wheels have already enjoyed.
posted by anonymisc at 12:02 AM on May 10, 2013

It was the Sinclair C5. The Sinclair Spectrum was the little personal computer.
posted by Brockles at 8:48 AM on May 12, 2013

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