No matter where you drive in the world — whether it’s on the right or left side, on paved streets or dirt roads — you’re likely to see one familiar sight inside all the vehicles: steering wheels. At least since 1894, when French engineer Alfred Vacheron implemented the first one in his car to try and gain an edge in the world’s first automobile race. (He came in 11th.)
The fact that no other control mechanism has supplanted this simple circle since then is a testament to the soundness of its design, but here are some fun alternatives that have been tried over the years.
Widely recognized by historians as the first true automobile, Carl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen of 1886 was controlled by a tiller — a single horizontal lever that the driver moved left or right. An idea ported over from small boats, it worked well enough for this three-wheeled, 10-mph foray into motorized land transportation. (Image credit: Getty Images)
When Ford Motor Company sought to push the boundaries of automotive design in the mid-1960s for its Mercury Park Lane convertible concept, it asked former missile engineer Robert J. Rumpf to design an auto control system as if he were an alien visiting Earth. Rumpf delivered the “Wrist Twist” — two rings mounted on a Y-shaped yoke extending from the steering column that the driver could twist independently with only a “light touch.” (Image credit: Ford Motor Company)
Car joysticks also date back to the 1960s, but Saab tried it again in the mid-1990s with its Prometheus 9000 concept car, which had a joystick mounted in the center console. According to a firsthand account by a Saab designer, driving it resulted in an “embarrassing zig-zag” but later became “totally intuitive” and a “pleasurable and rewarding experience.” (Image credit: Saab)
In late 2022, Mercedes-Benz debuted a new electric concept car called the VISION AVTR controlled by a small, tiered joystick in the center console. Push it forward to accelerate, pull it back to reverse, and twist it to turn. The vehicle can also “crab walk” to the side while facing forward. (Image credit: Mercedes-Benz)
In 1953, acclaimed industrial designer Harley Early of General Motors debuted the aviation-inspired Firebird concept car with a yoke in place of a steering wheel — a rounded rectangle with left and right handholds. The yoke remains far more common in planes, where pilots don’t need to turn as sharply. Nevertheless, Tesla Motors revived the yoke and put it into production on its Model S sedan and Model X SUV in 2021, with mixed reviews and safety concerns. (Image credit: Getty Images)
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