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The Quora Column

Why do we use steering wheels instead of joysticks?

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Strictly speaking, the steering wheel is obsolete.

Technology now allows us to control a vehicle's trajectory using drive-by-wire or steer-by-wire systems. Simply put, this means electrical signals can alter the movement of a car’s wheels, rather than relying on a mechanical connection between the wheel, steering rack, front axle and front wheels. In 2013, Nissan became the first major automaker to add a fully electric steer-by-wire-system option in its Infiniti Q50 sedan (which incidentally experienced a small recall in December 2013).

But steer-by-wire systems offer more than just an electronic option over a mechanical one; it also sets the groundwork for us to move our cars around differently – such as with a simple joystick.

Saab experimented with joystick steering in its Prometheus prototype more than 20 years ago, and mainstream carmakers might throw them into their concept vehicles, but the device has never caught on. To find out how drivers feel about ditching the steering wheel, we took to Quora.com, the online question and answer community, to gauge the driving public’s appetite for a joystick-controlled car.

Complicating the movement

Joysticks are easier to manipulate and have a tighter range of motion than a steering wheel, which on the surface may seem appealing, but Quora commenter Michael McWatters argues is problematic. "Joysticks are very sensitive by virtue of the relatively small geometry of movement, so a small tweak could have a big impact on the direction a car is traveling," he wrote. "A steering wheel, with its much larger range of motion, is far more forgiving."

McWatters also said a joystick's 360-degree range of motion could be confusing to drivers accustomed to simply turning a wheel left or right. "What if a user, in a panic, shoved a joystick forward as a bracing motion instinctively when approaching a traffic jam?"

The digital realm

Though the technology may exist for joysticks to replace steering wheels, Quora user Faheem Gill thinks that switching over to joysticks belongs in a broader conversation about the digitalisation of the automobile. "This is one of those topics that the industry has looked into and it's a function of a bigger electric vs. mechanical operating system discussion," he wrote.

Siding with safety – and tradition

Klaus Reichert said that joysticks won't replacing steering wheels because of drivers’ reticence to major change, and also because a steering wheel allows drivers to use both hands to react to situations quickly.

Jack Dahlgren echoed that point, arguing that while automobiles have progressed from a simple geared-steering mechanism to power steering and on to drive-by wire systems, "for safety reasons it is still desirable to have a non-electronic backup system, so the wheel may still not disappear".

Even with the advent of electronic steering systems, there are practical advantages to steering wheels, Dahlgren says, such as their ability to relay issues with a car’s tires or alignment, house an air bag and give a driver an “anchor” to clasp when manoeuvring through a choppy turn. "Those reasons alone are enough to prefer a wheel over a joystick."

Do you long for the day when a joystick might replace a conventional steering wheel? Sound off on our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.

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