At the 1996 Paris Motor Show, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a two-door concept car called the F200 Imagination. This car presaged not only the styling themes of the next S- and CL-class, but also something more profound. If you looked past its dihedral doors and electrotransparent roof to its manatee-colored interior, you would see a V-shaped joystick protruding from the center console, with redundant controllers astride the door panels. There was no steering wheel. There were no foot pedals. The drive-by-wire devices would control all motion: Push the stick forward to go forward, pull it back to decelerate. Move it left to go left, right to go right.
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
It wasn’t the first time a carmaker had fantasized about joysticks. General Motors used a similar arrangement in one of its jet-fighter cosplay concepts from the Fifties, the Firebird III. But the Mercedes F200 was, in a weird way, a return to the earliest days of Benz’s history and its Patent-Motorwagen, whose direction was controlled by a tiller. In another, it represented a future solution even the lab-coat wearers at Benz couldn’t have foretold. That’s right: The tiller is poised for a comeback. Call it a joystick if you prefer, but it’s really a stick that controls direction, and thus a tiller. Nothing against the steering wheel—it had a good run. But it’s just not primitive enough for the coming age of the automobile.
The wheel, you might argue, is the foundational human device. When the ancients looked up and beheld the transitions of the heavenly orbs, they saw the sun and moon rolling through the sky like wheels on some inconceivably large hidden rail. That eventually led to one of humanity’s biggest technological breakthroughs. I’m speaking, of course, of the Froot Loop.
Before that great rotational revelation almost five millennia ago, people still needed to cart rocks and dirt from place to place, but they did so via an even more elemental technology: sticks. Tie an animal hide between two parallel sticks, and you’ve got yourself a cart; the sticks reduce contact with the ground and make ferrying the dreck easier. For evidence see the cart ruts at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir on the island of Malta. I think there’s a Sandals there now.
But unlike our Maltese forebears, we needn’t long for the wheel. The devolution of cars—from human- to machine-driven, from analog to digital— demands a return to stick-based paradigms.
Consider the advantages of the tiller over the wheel: First, you can put a joystick anywhere. The steering wheel is likewise adaptable, having just begun severing its mechanical connection to the front wheels. But it takes up a ton of real estate, precludes total loungeability, and requires an airbag to keep it from injuring the driver in a crash. Now that we can reduce, via computer control, the old tiller’s steering ratio, we no longer need a big gear in our hands to comfortably direct the car.
And with the interior of the car in flux as the primary driving position comes under review, consider that, compared with a wheel, a tiller/joystick can more happily sit in a door panel or a console. It will allow for multiple driver positions.
Lastly, and depressingly, steering mechanisms are moving from primary to secondary controls, like a radio, requiring only occasional adjustment. Whether the car of the future is a driver helper or a full-on chauffeur, its steering will function either to remind the vehicle or override it.
The good part is that with a tiller, you can easily countersteer through a slide. I know this from playing Forza.