Why make a mountain out of a molehill?
When compared to the human body, even a small, light car is a powerful and relentless device. Once under way, momentum builds up and, as anyone who has been in or just considered any car accident at a speed of more than single figures knows, a car deserves great respect. So, it’s maybe understandable that some people treat driving a car as they would wrestling with a bear. For them, the car is a beast to be tamed, and each turn is a matter of hauling on the steering wheel, maybe with an inverted hand inside the rim for extra leverage. The wheel is clenched, the car lurches round and the sweat finally recedes from their brow as another herculean task is completed – just in time for the next bend.
But, for every bear wrestler there is someone who takes the polar opposite – the steering wheel guided by a single hand in the six o’clock position, gripped loosely in two fingers and a thumb, the other arm resting in the open window. These drivers seem to revel in the fact that the car is their bondservant, relieving them of the need to put in an ounce of thought as they proceed on their way in an aura of distracted ennui. The slack of the low geared steering even allows them to hold the wheel with their upper thighs as they reach over for the Starbucks in the cup holder.
But whether either of these is a sensible way to proceed is debatable. Actually, it’s not, I’m being polite – both methods are rubbish. Those methods of conducting a vehicle show that the drivers have no idea of what a car can or can’t do. But I don’t necessarily blame them for this, manufacturers just don’t send out the right message.
As tyres have got wider and stickier, as structures have grown in size and weight, as front-wheel drive engines have grown more powerful and as we’ve grown used to machines doing more and more things for us, power assistance has become essential rather than optional. It’s now a long time since I regularly drove a car without power steering. It was a Vauxhall Astra we used as a work runaround, and that was stolen and scrapped nearly 20 years ago. Many younger drivers will never have experienced unassisted steering. The first car I owned with power steering was a Renault Espace bought in 1986 and, in some ways, I still miss the mild workout I got before that when regularly driving a car without assistance.
But steering effort is not necessarily steering feel. The human body is capable of quite precise calibration. Surgeons, watchmakers, netsuke carvers all provide testament, yet most car manufacturers aim their vehicles at the sensitivity of the most unschooled potential driver. Most people reading this will remember the difficulty they had first using a computer mouse, as well as how quickly they learnt to use it with accuracy. However, whereas a mistake with a mouse might, at the worst, get you onto a dubious website, the risks for car makers are slightly more serious, so it’s understandable, if hugely disappointing, that they all go with what’s expected, and don’t factor in the possibility of any learning or acclimatisation by the driver into the process.
The steering and brakes of the 1970 Citroen SM still impress with their immediacy, though they completely lack conventional ‘feel’. The small steering wheel has just 2 turns lock-to-lock which achieves a tight 10.5 m turning circle – once accustomed, steering isn’t something you notice that much. Likewise braking; although initial drivers of the SM make much of standing the car on its nose when just trying for just a little gentle retardation, familiarity lets you modulate braking as much as with any vehicle, with the bonus that the brakes are highly effective when needed. Not that this effortless balance is constant throughout the car.
The clutch is on the weighty side of normal and, although the gearchange through its rolling metallic gate is actually a joy to use, it requires a degree of arm movement that is at odds with the steering and brakes – this was a car that was made for a paddle shifter. But the point is that Citroen, though taking the Diravi steering, in slightly diluted form, through the CX to early versions of the V6 powered XM, didn’t persist any further. Rather than catering for the converted, they felt it wiser to embrace the mainstream and do things like everyone else. I do like my SM and it’s very nice being the custodian of an interesting old car but, if Citroen or anyone else made something new with the same effortless yet very precise steering, I might well be tempted to choose that instead.
But the Citroen stands out for me only because the other systems remain so conservative. Some of the first cars were tiller controlled but, very soon, the steering wheel became the accepted norm with deviation from this confined to manufacturer’s show-cars. The 1954 Ford FX Atmos and 1962 Seattle-ite concepts both featured a type of joystick control, but this proceeded no further than did their notional nuclear powered engines.
The 1996 Mercedes F200 was a more practical concept car than either of the Fords, featuring a raft of innovations that have since been incorporated into subsequent production models, but the innovation that progressed no further was the sidestick steering and throttle control. BMW showed the Drivestick concept in 2002 and Honda showed some joystick designs in 2011, including the EV-STER. For production versions, don’t hold your breath.
In fact, most of these ways of guiding a car would take little acclimatising for the gaming generations, but about as radical as we get is the flat bottomed steering wheel, whose incorporation into anything but a cramped racer is meaningless. Of course any manufacturer knows that radical innovation in a car’s basic controls is more trouble than it’s worth, with a vista of lost sales and lawsuits on offer. Anyway, it’s probably too late to change now.
The autonomous vehicle, the driverless car, looms ever closer. Like the starting handle or the tiller control, the steering wheel will become an anachronism and can be replaced by a breakfast tray, or maybe a holder for your joystick so that you’ll be able to play some games to while away your trip.