Sometimes an entrepreneur should reinvent the wheel, as Revolution Motors has done with its Dagne electric vehicle, which utilizes a joystick to steer and brake the vehicle. The key to the success of wheel reinvention is knowing when and where to implement such dramatic shifts from past precedent.
The car brake pedal originated with stagecoaches, which required the use of the driver’s leg muscle to stop the stage, due to the horses’ “horsepower” and the coach’s weight. Use of the driver’s foot also freed their hands to hold the reigns. The foot brake made sense on stagecoaches, but it is less than optimal on computer-controlled, modern vehicles*.
Like the brake, early cars’ steering mechanisms were drawn from legacy modes of transportation. Cars were initially steered via a tiller device, similar to that used to control a boat’s rudder. Ironically, such tillers were rudimentary approximations of a modern joystick.
Steering wheels were co-opted from sailing ships. One of the first uses of an automobile steering wheel was in Alfred Vacheron’s 1893 race car. After winning several high-profile races, Vacheron’s design became widely adopted. In 1898, C.S. Rolls introduced a commercial vehicle which incorporated wheeled steering and by the end of the following decade, tiller steering was a thing of the past.
Use of a steering wheel was logical, especially before the advent of power steering, as a large wheel required fewer revolutions to mechanically translate movement to the car’s front axle, whereas a tiller had a limited range of motion. However, the introduction of power-assisted steering eliminated the steering wheels inherent advantage.
Studies by DaimlerChrysler have shown that the reaction time between the hand and the foot varies significantly. The hand is approximately twice as responsive, due to the relatively small and nimble wrist muscles which react more quickly than the larger, less agile leg muscles. This difference in reaction rates is minute, but significant. A half-second of enhanced response decreases rear-end collision deaths by 90%, whereas the application of the brake a full second earlier reduces such deaths by 95%.
The major cause of front-end collision deaths is the combination of the driver’s compromised response rate and the subsequent impact of the steering wheel. Even with airbags and collapsible steering columns, the International Road Traffic and Accident Database notes that a significant percentage of the 50,000 drivers killed each year on US highways are crushed by the steering wheel. In fact, emergency responders are instructed to inspect the steering wheel at crash sites as a means of estimating the extent of the driver’s internal injuries.
If it is safer to eliminate the steering wheel and allow drivers to control the brakes with their hands, why do all mass-produced cars still utilize technologies which arose from stagecoaches and sailing ships?