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Off on a tangent: Alternative control techniques

Chris Haining September 4, 2017 All Things Hoon 22 Comments

It was supposed to be a break from cars. We’d been living practically off-grid for a week, beginning with five days in our favourite corner of Cornwall for some R&R, before moving to the ‘Beautiful Days’ folk and rock music festival in Ottery St Mary, Devon.

It was while watching a band called Lau, that I started having impure thoughts. Lau is a Scottish / English folk act with an electronic twist. I had never heard them before, and the music started with all the charm, subtlety and intelligence of your regular folk band. That was until Martin Green fired up his Noise Device. Never before had I seen or heard an instrument sound like this or be played in such a way. And it got me thinking.

What if everything we ever knew about how cars were driven was to change?

My reading material for the Trip was Stephen Fry’s “Making history”, about the manufacture of a parallel existence, and it raised a good point. You can look at any aspect of our technology and trace its origins to whence they came. But what if the order in which things progressed had been different? I know that, for however many reasons, this would be impossible – but imagine if electronics and sensors had somehow leapfrogged mechanical linkages.

This Sound Device is, as far as I can tell, an interface that allows sounds played through it to be ‘circuit bent’ in an entirely analogue way. It has the appearance of some kind of evil 21st century space harp, and once a sound sequence or loop has been set via a laptop, it can then be manipulated in pitch, tempo, tone and timbre through manipulation of the strings. This can mean either a subtle tweak… or a violent attack.

There were passages in one track that described the stormy seas of Northern Scotland, where huge crashes of wave or thunder were musically represented through wild thrashing of the sound device wires. Each strand was pulled further and further from the machine’s frame, increasing the range of adjustment in for whichever frequency range or passage or loop it corresponded with. The result was ethereal and visceral – and quite unlike anything I had ever known.

So, I started imagining this as an alternative means of controlling a car. What if we’d never seen mechanical linkages such as steering wheels and accelerator cables?

Of course, today’s autonomous technology and high-tech infotainment control systems make broad use of gesture recognition, many of which have developed from our use of computers and smartphones – all in sequence with the natural sequence of how our familiar technology has evolved. But what if the process had been accelerated somewhat?

Imagine the Benz motor tricycle had been something more sophisticated than a wheeled park bench with a primitive engine and colossal flywheel. Imagine that we somehow skipped tiller-steering and hand throttles in favour of gesture recognition. Having never experienced a steering wheel before (and we must suspend disbelief and imagine that ships had some other control mechanism at that point too), by what method might we instruct a car?

Perhaps we might ‘conduct’ our car, as if it were an orchestra. In fact, a conductors baton has every bit enough expression to command acceleration, deceleration and changing gear, and with two hands in at work, it shouldn’t be too hard to assign a certain waving movement to steering, either. Where a great orchestra is at its best with a talented conductor, the same could be true of a driver. Imagine how subtle and well measured the gestures of a Formula One driver would need to be.

Or, if classical music wasn’t in the mind of the car’s creator, perhaps they might instead find inspiration in how a horse is controlled – this makes sense if it to be seen as an alternative mode of personal transport. Driving a horse is a full-body cardiovascular workout. An organic experience where two life forms react to each other’s inputs. You accelerate with your feet, brake with your hands and steer with a combination of hands and body. In this hypothetical sci-fi world of the past, it’s easy to imagine a car being instructed in the same way. Another thought is that this would also mean a change in the car’s physical form as we know it, to accommodate the upright nature of such a riding position.

The possibilities are endless when you consider what might have happened if time, progress, science and human ingenuity had worked out differently.

(Images Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2017, using a cameraphone with no optical zoom, in the dark)

  • Driving lessons from elsewhere in the multiverse:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xm-kureXztg

  • wunno sev
    • Troggy

      I’m baffled at how something so mechanically simple could be so… complicated? And this doesn’t go into what’s involved in stopping a Model T. Apparently you had to pump the brakes (I use the term loosely because Model T braking is a function of the transmission) to keep the bands from overheating, and some drivers could use a bit of reverse gear at the same time to pull up a bit faster. While using the hand throttle and adjusting the spark at the same time.
      I have an uncle-in-law who drove a Model T around Australia. They towed a trailer behind the Model T with their camping gear and spares in it. I expressed mild horror at the thought of having to slow or stop the rig but he said that the trick was that trailer had electric drum brakes. He used the trailer brakes instead of (what passed for) the car brakes to pull it up!

      • outback_ute

        I saw a Model T with disc brakes attached to the outside of the rear drums, or perhaps cast as part of them, which seemed like a good idea.

  • outback_ute

    I have read a hypothesis that our feet would be better suited for steering, due to them being used for walking, but there would not be enough range of movement if using a conventional mechanical rack. I can’t remember whether acceleration and braking was also controlled by the feet hoverboard style or by the hands, I read it at least 20 years ago.

    In the very early tiller steering days, foot operated steering would have been feasible but I can’t see it working for a 1960s car with 3/4 a ton of big block and iron case transmission in the front end!

    • Built a downhill racer with foot-operated steering.
      Press for the direction of travel.
      Immediately took out a mailbox at the base of the 4×4 post.

      • outback_ute

        I think some of the billy carts I drove/rode as a kid could have eliminated the steering rope if there were better foot grips on the front ‘axle’ to eliminate the risk of slipping off.

      • outback_ute

        There is nothing new under the sun!

  • SlowJoeCrow

    There was a 60s concept car that used two large dials on desk , a bit like a virtual DJ station, one was steering the other was a brake/throttle. FWIW heavy equipment often uses foot pedals for steering and quite a few things use joysticks of various sizes. The thing is, both the tiller and the wheel came from boats and still represent the most effective directional control mechanism for something that needs to be precisely steered while in contact with the ground. Joysticks work better for stuff moving through the air, like planes and backhoe buckets.

    • outback_ute

      I have seen a photo of a Ford Falcon from the early-mid 1960s that deleted the standard steering wheel and had wheels on either side of the drivers seat, that turned in opposite directions, for steering.

  • Troggy

    Considering that manual controls probably aren’t going to be a thing in less than 50 years, it isn’t worth making any significant changes to the way they work. When I apply my limited brainpower to it, I can’t really think of a much better way to do it anyway.
    I imagine a control system that interfaces with autonomous drive systems. Maybe the ability to change lanes and give directions via simple hand signals (gestures).

    Oooh wait, I’ve got it – you know out of all of the external sensors that they need to make an autonomous vehicle work, they are missing one key sensor. One on the inside of the car, measuring the occupants’ butt pucker factor (if anybody ever creates such a sensor and calls it a “butt pucker factor sensor”, I’m claiming royalties. And I want to hear it said three times, fast).
    How many times has our passenger alerted a driver of something that the driver missed, by just stiffening in the seat?
    With a pucker sensor, it would be able to detect that the meat bags are comfortable (or not) with the cars speed or situation, and the car could slow down or behave accordingly at any roadside obstacles or situations that that aren’t covered by the cars programming. The car would be alerted to a dangerous situation that the sensors have missed and still be able to react in some way rather than charging forwards into a situation with the occupants screaming at it to stop.

    TL:DR, I suggest that we control autonomous vehicles with our arses.

    • I see a lot of cars being driven by rectums every single day

      • I’m at work so I won’t google that, but according to South Park, it still beats dealing with airlines.

        • Troggy

          Bahaha I was wondering who would be first to mention the IT bike, it was the ‘other’ control layout that I had in mind but didn’t want to mention…

  • Monkey10is

    Of course many motorcyclists would suggest that they are already “two forms reacting to each other’s inputs” (your horse analogy) — at least as they start to push the performance envelope of the bike.

    The example which stands out for showing a real re-thinking of how to control a vehicle is the Segway. There are no conventional controls and acceleration/deceleration/direction are all controlled by the ‘rider’ moving their bodyweight about. In that it has some similarities to skiing, surfing and even hang-gliding — but applying this concept to a means of transport seemed to be a huge conceptual change.

    • Absolutely agree. After a few rather precarious minutes, I rapidly mastered the ‘hoverboard’ and would love to know how that control technique might translate to something rather faster.

  • Alff

    Had that happened, the hipsters of today would be driving vehicles with 80’s vintage driving controls. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b50432f98d9200bbf8a949dbb3d45e9176902edac0306fb9a91213048884105f.jpg