- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

I've written frequently about the wonders of upcoming by-wire technologies, but only recently did I get behind the wheel (well, sort of steering wheel) in a by-wire car.

By-wire uses electric signals instead of mechanical linkages for things such as steering, braking, shifting and accelerating. Automakers are adopting by-wire as it eliminates the need for pedals and even a traditional steering wheel, providing designers with the freedom to reinvent the man-machine interface and dramatically restyle the car's interior. By-wire has just begun appearing in vehicles but is expected to proliferate in the next few years.

The French-based SKF is transferring its by-wire expertise in aircraft to cars and trucks and, just recently, allowed test-drives of its most up-to-date by-wire concept car.

My test-drive was in an Opel Zafira minivan outfitted with SKF's latest version of by-wire. I slid behind what looked like a half steering wheel the usual round parts of the top and bottom were absent. It reminded me of the steering mechanism for an aircraft. SKF calls this restyled steering wheel a "guida," the Italian word for drive.

Instead of using pedals, I was to squeeze the handgrips on the sides of the guida to stop and turn them to accelerate. "It's just like operating a motorcycle," I was told. However, I haven't ridden a motorcycle since high school.

Nervously, I instinctively squeezed the brakes and turned the accelerator handles simultaneously. I instantly stalled the Zafira several times. You'd be surprised how often you squeeze the steering wheel, especially when under stress. You'd also be amazed at how often you move your foot to the brake, in this case, where there wasn't one.

My instructor grew impatient, hounding me, "Why are you doing that?" I couldn't answer habit, instinct, I guess. I wasn't alone. I was relieved to see a high-ranking automobile company executive known for his driving skill immediately stall the vehicle as well. As I rolled to the on-ramp of the test track, my instructor shifted from first to second gear by pushing a button on the guida. I found my hands were too busy accelerating and braking to add one more task.

I was cruising along at about 40 mph when the earlier warning about the quick steering sunk in. I had been told but hadn't really understood that a 20 percent turn of the guida was the equivalent of spinning a traditional steering wheel three times. The fact was driven home as I desperately tried to follow the line of the racetrack. To round a corner, I turned the "steering wheel" the amount I normally would and found myself nearly off the track. I turned the wheel back to compensate way too much. I was swerving back and forth across the track like a drunken driver trying to regain control of the vehicle.

I was relieved to bring the by-wire test car to a halt in the pits, which I did by stalling it. My instructor was relieved that I didn't want to go another lap.

The lessonfrom this exercise is that automakers had better think long and hard about forcing drivers with ingrained habits to relearn how to drive when introducing new technologies. They simply won't be accepted. Indeed, automakers and their interior suppliers envision the car of the future as one with a roomy, radically redesigned interior, and perhaps one in which the steering wheel is eliminated or replaced with something like a joystick.

Maybe people who grew up on video games will adjust, but longtime drivers like me need our steering wheel.

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