The steering wheel has been a standard control in cars for almost as long as the car itself has been around. It's something we associate almost indelibly with what a car actually is. But, if Ferrari gets its way, the steering wheel and even the pedals might be somewhat of a thing of the past!
Back in April 2019, Ferrari submitted a very curious looking patent to the US Patent Office. The (surprisingly very simple) patent in question concerns a "method and device for controlling a car, in particular a sport[s] car." What is that method, you ask? Well, it has more to do in common with a jet fighter or a video game than anything you would typically see in a sports car. It is, quite literally, a joystick!
So, what's the specifics of this new control system? Well, according to the patent, the joystick would have both forward and backward and left and right motions (forward for acceleration, back for braking and left and right for steering respectively). There also seems to be no attempt to make this system compatible with a manual gearbox and releasing the joystick whilst the car is on the move would mean that the car carries on at the same speed it was doing previously. As far as things look, there doesn't even seem to be any discernible gear shift buttons on the joystick either.
Why would you want a control system like this where there's no ability to use a manual gearbox with it and where there's a system of what is almost practically permanent cruise control? Well, it's not exactly a secret that Ferrari are planning to build a fully electric vehicle. Maybe this radically new control system will be a part of that. After all, an EV doesn't require any gear shifts. Indeed, there are are details in the patent documentation to suggest that the regenerative braking of EVs could be integrated easily into the new joystick based control system, so it is very possible.
Ferrari experimenting with this almost space age system of controlling a car isn't anything new. Other car manufacturers have experimented with similar systems before. Saab experimented with a joystick based steering system in the 90s, retro-fitting a Saab 9000 to serve as a test mule for it. The car was nicknamed "Prometheus" and had its steering wheel ripped out and replaced by a joystick in the centre console where steering was controlled by moving it left and right, like in the Ferrari patent. The reason Saab experimented with this was because of safety concerns - even with an airbag, a steering wheel can still give you a nasty bump on the head in a crash if you aren't lucky! Unfortunately, the Prometheus programme wasn't successful.
In real world situations, Prometheus wasn't that fantastic to drive. It was harder to make precise corrections on the joystick, which only turned 180 degrees from lock to lock instead of the 3.5 turns a conventional steering wheel usually takes. The steer by wire system of the joystick also provided a bit of an alien driving experience (steer by wire hasn't taken off in production cars still, even though throttle by wire is becoming increasingly common). One of the most unforseen problems though was that a joystick is not a good place to rest your hands - if anything, you have to actually make a conscious effort to keep your hand up to be able to use it. Saab was planning for a production version to have two joysticks (one for each hand) for this reason, so when one hand became tired the driver could just switch to the other.
The condundrum of whether the steering wheel and pedals setup that's been conventional for over a hundred years by this point can be replaced by something better is something that's certainly very interesting. Saab's attempt at it was a total failure by all accounts, but maybe Ferrari's system will learn from those mistakes and make something that actually works. Maybe in the era of electric vehicles where single speed gearboxes and regenerative braking are king, a radically new control system can actually work.