Automakers suspect consumers not ready
February 12, 2004
BY RICK POPELY
CHICAGO -- While Mom or Dad drives with a steering wheel and pedals in front, Junior is in the backseat playing "Gran Turismo 3" with a tiny joystick and buttons on a video-game controller.
How long before the joystick and buttons make their way to the driver's seat and replace the steering wheel and pedals?
Though the technology exists and no federal regulations prevent using them, automakers have demonstrated such devices on only concept vehicles with no indication they will build them.
On one recent example, General Motors replaced the wheel and pedals on its Hy-Wire concept shown at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit with twist handles to steer and accelerate the fuel cell-powered car. The brakes were engaged by squeezing the handles.
Dave Rand, GM's executive director of advanced design, said that was done primarily to free interior space and is unlikely to show up soon on a production model.
"We've used stalks of some kind since the 1950s on concept cars, but there is always the question of consumer acceptance of something like that," Rand said.
Consumers aren't clamoring for major changes from the wheel and pedals, said Tom Semple, president of Nissan Design America, and he doesn't see a need.
"We're not trying to reinvent the interior. We're trying to make it better, enrich the driving experience," Semple said.
Semple likens stabs at changing the primary driving controls to attempts at reinventing the bicycle. Designers return to the tried-and-true because it proves most viable.
"The steering wheel just works really well, like round tires," he said.
J.D. Power and Associates found some desire for change among 21,000 consumers surveyed last year for its emerging technologies study. Twenty-five percent said they would pay up to $300 for a joystick or "dual-handle control" device like those that steer aircraft.
Of these, two-thirds preferred the dual-handle control, much closer to a traditional steering wheel than a joystick.
Rand jokes that the 25 percent who raised their hands "may have just come off their Nintendo game." He wonders whether they would want to live with it or buy it a second time.
"It would have to go beyond just being a novelty," he said, predicting a "slow but steady evolution" of the traditional layout.
"It's so standardized today that people can easily go from one car to another and feel very comfortable," he said.
"The question always is, what is the benefit? If it improves the spaciousness, opens up the environment, then you can justify a change. But there's an obvious risk to really pushing the envelope."
Scion, Toyota's brand aimed at twentysomethings and younger, didn't consider joysticks because there didn't appear to be demand from the target buyers.
Such technology usually arrives first on luxury models, where any additional cost is easily absorbed, said Brian Bolain, Scion's national sales promotions manager. Instead, Scion is likely to be creative with sound and communications systems, technology that resonates with its buyers.
Automakers hesitate to change the primary controls because experience tells them that even tweaks to minor controls upset consumers.
Horn buttons placed on steering-wheel spokes are easy to operate with thumbs when the wheel is pointed straight but can be harder to find if the wheel is turned. Semple said in an emergency, most drivers instinctively hit the steering-wheel hub to sound the horn.
"Right now, driving a car is a learned experience, and things like that become second nature," he said.
"People always say that cars all look alike, but when you do something different it startles them."