Why The Joystick-Controlled Car Will Never Die Or Actually Happen


Let me make one thing clear up front: I love both joysticks and cars. Loving cars is my job, and I've done my share to prove my joystick love as well. But I don't think the two need to be combined. At least not for actually driving. Yet the idea of a joystick-driven car seems to be one that will never die.

Why The Joystick-Controlled Car Will Never Die Or Actually Happen

The idea of steering cars by joystick has been around quite a while, inspired by aircraft controls. At the start of the jet age, everyone secretly wanted to be a superfast sexy jet pilot, and car makers were as smitten as anyone, creating very jet-inpired concept cars like the Ford FX Atmos and GM's Firebird series, which on the Firebird III included joystick control for the car.

Why The Joystick-Controlled Car Will Never Die Or Actually Happen

The idea has never really gone away since. In the 50s and 60s it was really more of a novelty device for show cars, using hydraulics and mechanical linkages when they actually bothered to make them functional at all. In the late '70s and into the '80s, as electronics started to mature, the plausibility of joystick-controlled vehicles became much more viable technically, and you started to see more experimental vehicles built not for jet-age flashiness, but as real driver-experience research.

Saab experimented with a joystick-controlled drive-by-wire system back in 1979, but the main goal there was more safety than re-thinking driver control. At the time, it was not at all certain that airbag systems could be packed into steering wheels, so the removal of the steering wheel and column as a safety feature, leaving plenty of room for airbags and organ-harvesters and whatnot seemed like a great idea.

Why The Joystick-Controlled Car Will Never Die Or Actually Happen

Since then, concept of the joystick controlled car shows no signs of dying, even if it never actually makes it to market. Joystick controlled concepts keep popping up, and they always get a lot of public attention. Mercedes-Benz' 1996 F200 Imagination concept car even has its own Snopes page debunking rumors of its imminent release, possibly sent to you by your shut-in aunt as late as 2006.

Once modern drive-by-wire systems really started to come to cars, a whole new wave of joystick-driving speculation began. In 2009, we were told about Toyota testing new joystick-controlled cars, and in 2012 we were reminded that Nissan's on it as well. Hell, just last month BBC Autos ran a whole post about why we're not using joysticks to drive just yet.

This won't end. As long as car makers want to make a bit of quick news from a concept car, removing the one component all drivers are most familiar with will always be an easy way to do it. It's gimmicky and cheap, and for that reason I think we're going to be stuck seeing it for a long while.

There is some use for cars modified for joystick control to allow for use by disabled people, but as far as mainstream cars go, there's absolutely no good reason to use a joystick. Sure, there's still people out there who advocate for joystick-controlled cars, but I'm going to argue that if you really want to steer your car with a joystick, you don't really like driving and you may as well just hold out for a fully autonomous car.

Dividing the labor between hands and feet was one of the real innovations of human-machine interaction for cars. A number of early cars tried to use hands for throttle, fuel mixture, spark advance, and steering, and of course it was a mess. Most joystick control systems use the joystick for everything — throttle, braking, and steering, on the assumption that it's the most intuitive way.

Why The Joystick-Controlled Car Will Never Die Or Actually Happen

And, at first glance, it does seem intuitive — forward to go forward, pull back to brake, and left and right for, well, left and right. Conceptually, it's fine. But in practice, it's tricky. Modulating throttle while turning would be tricky, and the range of motion of a joystick would demand fairly small, precise movements, which aren't always easy to achieve in intense driving situations. Plus, accidental bumping of the stick can affect absolutely everything the car can do, which seems a recipe for trouble.

Feedback through the stick would be at worst nonexistent or at best artificial, which would kill a lot of what makes performance-oriented driving so appealing. These issues I think are well-known and accepted, which is why we don't have joystick cars today, but I think there's one more very big reason that I think will make hand-joystick operated cars not even worth pursuing anymore in even a show-car context.

Why The Joystick-Controlled Car Will Never Die Or Actually Happen

That one big reason is your whole body. One of the great things about dividing the task of driving a car between all of your limbs is that it inherently involves your entire body in driving. Using a joystick to control a car involves your hand and your eyes/brain. Using a wheel and pedals involves your arms, legs, the position of your body, your own shifts in weight, the need to brace different parts of yourself, and more. It lends itself not just to being able to vary throttle or brake independently of steering, but to an overall feeling of connectedness with the car that a single hand control can never match.

I'm not saying that the wheel-and-pedals setup can't be replaced, or that we shouldn't keep looking for new ways to do things. Of course we should — what am I, some filthy luddite? But I do think that the joystick as a car-control device has run its course, and I am formally submitting that it should be retired from the concept car circuit.

It's time to try some new things, hopefully things that incorporate the whole body. What about an articulated driver's seat that takes input through your ass from your whole body's position? That seems possibly exhausting, but fun, and no less ridiculous than some of these joystick concepts.

I should be fair, though, and admit I've never driven a true joystick-controlled vehicle outside of sneaking rides on electric wheelchairs at hospitals. So I'm hoping to set up a race with some sort of hopped-up joystick-controlled mobility scooter and a standard go-kart. So, if anyone has, say, an electric wheelchair with a 125cc moped engine in it, please let me know.