Man and Machine in Perfect Harmony?
The above quote dates from the days when Ford felt that they could snub a sizeable sector of their customer base in their advertising but, disregarding the now quaint-looking gender bias, it does speak of that need to sit well at the controls of your chosen motor car.
I was looking at the interior of a new Peugeot 3008 the other day and was offended by the steering wheel. The now almost mandatory flat bottom has been joined by a flat top which, I assume, is a compromise that allows a larger field of view of the high-mounted instrument panel. Combined with the centre boss and mounted controls, there seems little room left to put your hands. But then I thought the usual – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Because I’m offended by a lot of steering wheels nowadays. And gearsticks. They seem more and more prescriptive in their ergonomics. Good ergonomics is, surely, adapting a system to the human body. Bad ergonomics is demanding the body adapts to the system. In fact that isn’t even ergonomics. The Peugeot’s steering wheel seems to have been designed to be gripped and used in one way only.
In principle I might approve of this. I am essentially a ten-to-two sort of person, but I’m not so dogmatic as to assume that is the only way to conduct a car well. I seem to recall many years ago reading a respected driver (Stirling Moss maybe) saying that in everyday driving he favoured quarter-to-three. Which is of course perfectly fine.. But half-past-six is not, neither is ten-to-four, unless you are forever driving round a British roundabout. Which we currently are – but enough of politics.
Ever since my car delivery days, when I experienced the full gamut of driving abilities, I’ve been a pretty fatalistic passenger. I sit there and look at the idiot with his elbow on the windowsill, two fingers lightly gripping the steering wheel, whilst he scratches himself intimately with the other hand, and I think casually about the things I might have done with my life, but I’m not scared. I am aesthetically offended. There is something unseemly about my species letting down the human/machine interface.
So is the Peugeot steering wheel the answer? It seems to demand that you hold it in my preferred position, with your body straight and your eyes on the road – a posture encouraged by Peugeot’s literally over-the-top instruments. So, indeed, I won’t knock it until I try it, but it still worries me. Without wanting to come across as a rabid libertarian, like many of the things that are designed to make our world a safer place, the Peugeot’s steering wheel seems to deprive us of choice. Those bulges even dictate where you put your thumbs and suggest that you grip it tight. My own preference is to hold the wheel quite lightly, and I have a variety of preferred thumb positions. Would the 3008 accommodate me?
I don’t have many pictures of me at the steering wheel but I have now studied a video of me driving and I note the following range of poses*.
The other thing that Stirling Moss (or, maybe, someone else) pointed out is that ‘feeding’ the wheel is not always necessary and that there is nothing wrong with a bit of crossed arm work if you know where you are going. With just 2 turns lock-to-lock on the car I’m driving above that is what I occasionally do. That is a car with very precise and sensitive steering; driving a van I would be a bit less gentle but, really, most modern vehicles, whatever their size, are not really physical in their inter-reaction and don’t respond well to the iron fist. Also, you will note that the wheel on my car is slightly oval, so you might find my desire that steering wheels should be round, rather hypocritical. So I should modify that to the desire that they should be harmoniously curved and devoid of sudden changes. But, generally, I don’t think that the Peugeot’s wheel would allow me the comfortable range of gripping options I seem to like.
But then I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone who grew up thinking of a car cabin as being more something derived from a vintage Bentley than a Star Wars starfighter. So maybe it’s just an age thing and, unless I steer clear of all moderns, or unless autonomy comes along very quickly, or unless fate stops me from driving very soon, I guess I’m going to have to compromise my driving style and get used to it.
* To avoid misunderstanding, where I am not holding the wheel, I am stationary – a state well-known to city drivers.