James May

James May

The wheel thing

One of the few things that Jeremy Clarkson and I agree about is that the world, overall, is getting better. 

Traditionally, everyone over the age of 45 believes that the place is going to hell in a handcart, but if you think about this, it can't be true. Presumably, people have been saying as much since William the Conqueror arrived, and if it were actually happening we'd have got there long ago.

In truth, everything improves. Life expectancy lengthens, standards of living rise overall, more diseases are banished and people in Manchester no longer have to eat coal. I can't imagine a single aspect of plague- and jester-ridden mediaeval life that would have been better than the one we enjoy today.

Certainly, every artefact of man's making gets better. The car certainly does, but so do things that have been with us for centuries, such as the mechanisms of wristwatches, cement and woodworking tools. Very few things have reached the peak of their development and stayed there.

But there are one or two. One that springs to mind is the Mouli cheese grater, a device that allows single men to make Welsh Rarebit without the ends of their own fingers in it. I've studied mine very carefully and can't see how it could be improved. Better materials would make no difference, and its dimensions and simple mechanism seem to have been perfectly refined. I've had mine for 20 years and the one you buy today is exactly the same. Mouli grater - sorted.

Another is the rubber bathroom sink plug. The French popularised the type that is shaped like a metal mushroom and operated by a lever on the tap assembly, but they never fit properly and let all the water out. My downstairs guest bathroom has a sort of silvery disc that pivots in its hole, and I knew when I bought the sink that it would leak like a government ministry.

It's all very well trying to express your 'design literacy' through your choice of bathroom fittings, but sooner or later, you're going to have to admit that only a rubber bung on the end of a chain is truly reliable. We've known it for several hundred years. Sink plug - job done.

"Traditionally, everyone over the age of 45 believes that the place is going to hell in a handcart”

And now to the steering wheel. As a means of steering a car, I really don't think it can be beaten. Early cars had tiller arrangements, like boats, and I believe there may have been attempts to steer them with the feet, but the steering wheel had been adopted by Benz before 1900, and even British Leyland couldn't improve on it, although they tried with that quartic nonsense.

Elsewhere, and more recently, joystick control has been tried. Saab came up with such a system, and it worked at an academic level, but not so well that they let anyone drive it on a real road. More recently, it has been possible to engineer in feedback with elaborate sensors and microprocessors, but what's the point? Perfect feedback can already be achieved by joining a wheel to the steering mechanism with pieces of metal, so why remove that and then try to replicate it?

The steering wheel is a perfectly logical, truly analogue triumph for the man/machine interface, and I don't believe it will ever be usurped so long as the car is with us. Steering wheel - rock on.

Imagine my dismay when I learned that some people in the automotive engineering community now believe that cars in the future will be steered with two thumb-operated buttons, in the style of the Playboy gaming console. If, like me, you've ever wasted any of your life away on one of these things, you will know this is a stupid idea. Opposed thumbs may be what separate us from the beasts of the field, but they were not meant for steering cars.

What worries me, though, is that the first car I ever drove was a real one, on a real road. Now, however, a new generation of drivers is emerging; one that learned to drive through virtual Britain on a Gamestation. Is it possible that thumbsteer for them is as intuitive as a wheel is for me? That the steering wheel only makes sense because that's how I was nurtured? That a wheel-guided car might seem as preposterous to them as a buttock-operated Mouli grater would to me?

I don't believe it, not at all. But I've just realised something. By the time you read this, I'll be 45, and the world will be going to hell in a handcart. I'll see you there. I'll be the bloke in the small Fiat with the funny circular thing in it. 


James May, Column

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