Skeuomorphs in motoring

If you tell a kid something, they just accept it, like the existence of Santa Claus, tooth fairies or honest pollies.

Adults aren’t so accepting.  First they need to understand why they need to know, then if something is new it had better fit with their existing experience and knowledge or it’ll get rejected.  So one technique we use is to move from the known to the unknown, allowing students to connect the dots. 

For example, we talk of following a big truck around a roundabout and seeing its rear wheels cut the corner.  We use that experience as a base to explain how the front wheels of a car describe a larger arc when turning, so we’re relating to an agreed experience, and then we can discuss transmission windup.

This principle of using the familiar to aid understanding is found in design too.  I’m typing this on a word processor, and guess what the Save icon is.  A floppy disk, but when was the last time you used a floppy?   And your car’s phone system probably has icons showing a phone being lifted, and replaced in a receiver.  But now we just press buttons.

All these are skeuomorphs, which are new things that retain characteristics of old things that they don’t need to, so users feel more comfortable.  Humans are, after all, rather change resistant and become emotionally attached to things.  Football teams, TV programmes…you name it, we love our tradition, heritage, sense of belonging.  It’s why old junk sells so well to middle aged people reconnecting with their youth, and why we love team sports so much.  Douglas Adams once said that anything invented after you turn 35 is against the natural order of things, and there’s a fair truth in that.

And when it comes to cars there’s giant skeuomorphs right in front you.  Controls we don’t need, but have just because we’ve always had them.

Yes, I speak of the steering wheel and pedals, none of which are necessary or useful in a modern vehicle.  And I don’t mean self-driving cars, at least not yet.  What I mean is that the reasons for using a wheel and pedals to control a car have now disappeared, and the only reason they remain is because users like them and have a strong emotional attachment.


So to backtrack.  The original car designers had to turn the front wheels, and devised the steering wheel as good way to provide the necessary leverage to move the wheels with the precision required to control the car.  The pedals were invented because the driver’s hands were now pretty busy.  And this is speculation, but I wonder if the early car designers looked at the stirrups and reins on a horse for steering and speed, then tried to emulate that for a car.  Vehicles can easily be steered by feet, as pilots manoeuvre aircraft on the ground in exactly this way, as do drivers of skid-steer tracked vehicles. 

But we are now in 2015, not 1915, and the situation is different.  We have sophisticated computers and electric motors to do our bidding, so there’s no need for physical, mechanical leverage.  In fact, all we need to control a car is a joystick – move forwards to accelerate, pull back to slow down, move left and right to turn.  The computers can translate that into the necessary steering, throttle and brake movements.  How’s that sound instead of a steering wheel and pedals?  No?  You must be one of those stick-in-the-mud humans then, resistant to change, because there’s excellent arguments for a joystick-controlled car.

The first reason is space.  One joystick takes up a lot less room than a set of pedals and a wheel.  Second is control.  Teaching foot/hand coordination is difficult, coordinating just one hand is easier.  And the steering wheel has always been a difficult thing to use – I spend a lot of time on advanced car control courses on that subject alone, and it’d be much easier without.  There’s safety too, without the wheel in the way you could make a bigger and better “driver” airbag like the passenger one.

How are you feeling now?  I wonder where you are on the change cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance?  Perhaps you’re at denial, saying it’s not possible.  Well, sorry, but that’s what horseriders said about the car, and runners said about the idea of riding horses.  And look where they ended up. 

Your children’s children will be born into a world of joystick-controlled, self-driving cars and they’ll never miss what they never knew, same as you’ll never miss the thrill of hunting your dinner with a spear.

What of the title image?  Many 4X4s, all quite different…yet all with controls that are past their time in this age of electronics.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper