Joystick-operated cars.

This is to this:

As this is to this:

Why hasn’t the car’s interface changed? ¬†Imagine if the car were being designed today:

CEO Automotive-Industrial Complex: Good morning. what are we working on today?
Concerned Underling: Stopping. It’s pretty important that the driver be able to stop the car. What kind of interface should we use?
CEO AIC: Hmm. I like feet. Let’s use them.
Underling: Are you crazy? There’s almost no other task humans use their feet for! Feet have a fraction as many nerves as hands. They’re clumsy, insensitive and far from the brain.
CEO AIC: You’re clumsy and insensitive and far from a brain. Write that down. Now. I want to mount the foot controls in a place where the driver can’t see them.
Underling: What!?!
CEO AIC: No talking. I’m also going to put the accelerator control right next to the brake and have the two pedals look and feel eerily similar…
Underling: Well, I quit! This pedal idea will never take off.
CEO AIC: You can’t quit. You’re fired!! Mwahahaha…

The world of car safety has had many focuses. Crashes were attenuated: frames have been made stiffer, crumple zones crumplier, seat belts made compulsory. We have also worked on avoiding the crashes, by legislating sobriety for drivers and putting traction control into the car itself. But even a sober driver in a computer aided car is limited by reaction time.

We need this:

Putting the accelerator and brake into one device makes sense. It means we don’t have to move our hand or foot from one to the other when we want to change speed.

In addition, hands are closer to the brain, full of nerves, and make faster reactions than feet (reference). Having a hand-operated brake would cut reaction times by 17 milliseconds (reference). This translates to 4.72 metres at 100 km/h, and doesn’t include any time taken to move the foot from the accelerator to the brake.

The stopping distance of a Toyota Camry going at 90km/h is 43.5 metres. A saving of 4.72 metres is about 10 percent of that. We can say then that 10 percent of crashes would be avoided with a hand-operated brake, and that ten percent of crashes that would have been at a fatal speed will now be at a non-fatal speed. Reaction time is an even greater proportion of the stopping distance at lower speeds, so a joystick brake would prevent a greater proportion of lower speed crashes.

Crash Test Dummies give their lives

People are prepared to go to great lengths for car safety. We drive like snails through school zones. We pay heaps extra for lumbar cushioning and airbags. We senselessly murder hundreds of our Scandinavian friends with the yellow and black circles (they’re all Swedish right?) annually, all in the name of automotive safety.

If you were designing a car from scratch, you wouldn’t put the stop and go buttons out of view, in the dark, and have both of them operated with one foot. It’s a retarded way, that I bet is some legacy from how cars were first designed.

People think they love the pedals, and come up with all sort of ex-post rationalisations for their retention. They’ll tell you how good they are at braking, how people sometimes take their hands off the steering wheel, or how they’d get RSI in their wrist.

But the only big reason to not go immediately to a joystick acceleration model is what to do with your steering. Unlike the pedals, the steering wheel is a pretty good system. In some ways it makes sense to have steering controlled by hand as well. So:

Would you integrate it all into one system, like a computer game joystick, so the accelerator was also the brake and the steering?

Here’s a prototype from Mercedes Benz, the Yeni

Or, have a joystick for the steering / braking controls and just the accelerator under foot?

Every alternative system would have its downsides, but fundamentally a hand applied brake system will be speedier than a foot-operated one. Although obviously, like a steering wheel, you’d have to make it operable with only one hand, or it would make texting while drinking coffee even more dangerous….

Your comments are appreciated!

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

11 thoughts on “Joystick-operated cars.”

  1. Just because a design can be improved, doesn’t mean it should be or is going to be.

    Look at the QWERTY keyboard.


  2. Interesting article. Top Gear UK (one of my guilty pleasures as a car-hating commuter cyclist) had a show (Season 10 Episode 8) where they actually drove some of the very early cars starting with the tiller steering on the late 19th century cars. There where many designs for the controls before the model that set the precedents come on the market. It was a process of trial and error with the final design stumbling on to the market in the form of the Cadillac Type 53 from 1916.
    So todays controls are part mechanical, part ergonomics and part tradition. A move to a fully electric car should offer an opportunity to re-look at the conventions.

    I despair at the current approach to design though because it seems to be headed in the direction of removing direct control and sensory experience away from the driver. One of the appeals of cars is that they are adventure machines and fun (sometimes) to drive. It’s interesting to compare the current state of motorcycle design with the direction of cars. Somehow motorcyclists are allowed to drive incredibly dangerous machines without all the sensory deprivation and safety interference. I am fascinated with the idea of creating an appropriate sensation of speed and danger in cars at lower speeds. I can’t see how driving a car at 100kms and virtually being lulled to sleep in quiet comfort is good for safety. If you are on a bicycle at 50kms an hour you aren’t likely to be texting.


  3. It will be a hard transition for those who’ve grown up with pedals on the floor. A bit like when manual drivers get in a auto and try to slam the clutch pedal down, nothing there.

    Why are we even talking about mechanically operated cars?

    This is 2010 – shouldn’t the driver only be making the ‘major decisions’ but a microprocessor doing the rest (how fast to go, when to slow, how to turn the corner). It’s not like with GPS, with cheap and cheerful computing, it isn’t possible right now.

    And improving safety with off the shelf infra-red, radar, doppler, other detection devices, and even using google streetview to tell you what is on the ‘other side’ ie the virtual cloaking device.


  4. In fact, if the car did the driving, and the occupants decided the destination and maybe the route…there’s no reason to designate one the ‘driver’ or for them to sit in the front righthand position. You could direct the car’s general direction from the backseat if you wanted.


  5. Driving a car demands a high level of dexterity, coordination and concentration. It is arguably one of the most dangerous things we will do on an on going basis.

    When looking at a control interface you must consider the following 2 items:
    – Mechanics. (relating to linking the controls to the item being controlled)
    – Ergonomics. (Relating to fitting the human to the machine)

    In the early days you needed to use push-rods and belts to twist, push and pull parts of the machine so that the machine as a whole worked the way you wanted it. Sometimes levers and dials were cumbersome, requiring awkward handling. Ergonomics lost over mechanics and we ended up with things like those steam driven vehicles you see at shows, or bobcats, or tractors etc… The human had to fit the machine.

    Now the focus is on the machine fitting the human. I actually think a car is a brilliant example of the evolution of ergonomics Vs mechanics. We now sit in a comfortable chair, we can adjust the steering wheel to fit us perfectly. As we turn the wheel it almost linearly relates to steerability. When we push the enlarged brake pedal we are even assisted with powered braking and ABS.

    For a joystick to be utilised in a car you need powered controls. A small joystick won’t have the leverage that a steering wheel will to get you around a corner. To be able to mechanically command all the driving freedoms from a stick (fwd, back, left, right) you will need ‘drive-by-wire’ technology to be able to harmonise all freedoms. This isn’t a computer game though, this is life and you will crash if they get it wrong.

    Ergonomically, you’ve also got to strike a balance between centralising all controls, or separating them enough so that your brain can decipher which inputs need to go where. Can you imagine trying to brake and swerve around an obstacle with a stick accurately.

    With an aeroplane it’s a whole new ball game, you’ve got another dimension. Hence the stick.

    Stick = Pitch Up, Pitch Down, Roll Left, Roll Right.
    Rudder pedals = Yaw Left, Yaw Right (and steering when on the ground). The big jets actually have a tiller like on a boat for that.
    Thrust levers = Forward to speed up, rearward to reduce acceleration.
    Brakes = on the ground, push the top of the rudder pedals. In the air, pull a speed brake lever.


    I like having my arms for left and right and my legs for stop and go. My legs make me stop and go when i’m walking or running so it seems like a logical place to me. Also, my arms help me tell my left from my right.


  6. I think it’d work quite well if all was going well, ie straight clear road, stable speed, etc. However, if something happens, and you need to jam the anchors on, or swerve, or a mixture of both, then I think the biggest problem will be getting the movements right as your body is being swung around with the G-forces that accompany such violent changes in direction or speed. Hanging on tight to a steering wheel helps keep the driver stable, and the driver is unlikely to spin the wheel “lock to lock”, wheras flipping a joystick hard left to hard right (and possibly back again, more than once) is really quite likely.

    So I agree with retaining the steering wheel. I would like to mount a twisty accelerator – motorbike style – into the wheel at about 2 o’clock, and leave the brake where it is, except on its own, and perhaps larger. Making the twist mechanism quite sensitive would allow full use of the hands finer touch, and keeping the brake separate makes it impossible to accidentally do one when you meant the other. I’ll call Holden now…


  7. I think this is a VERY bad idea. Have you seen how poorly most people control an electric wheelchair? Not to mention the fact that this puts more electronics (Which IMO are more likely to fail in a vehicle than a mechanical device.) between the driver and the tires.
    Just my 2 cents.

    As a note.. I dislike electronics on essential parts of a car so much that I won’t drive an automatic if I can avoid. I want to be “In Control” of the car, to feel every blemish in the road..


  8. I don’t think there is anything wrong with current car controls. In the 80s Saab tried making a car with a joystick and it was undrivable. Also, you have to think about things like what is going to happen when you’re driving at freeway speeds drinking a coffee or tuning the radio and suddenly have to stop. Car controls have been the way they are for almost a hundred years for a reason, they are intuitive, natural and functional.


  9. Calculations for me work like this:
    at 100 km/h, this is is 27.8 m/s speed. Thus, in 17 ms = 0.017s, the distance would be 0.472 m.
    Perhaps you are missing a 0 at important point?


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