Several years ago, I attended a technology conference at MIT, organized by Technology Review magazine. Lots of high-level industry leaders were there, almost all from the engineering side rather than marketing. Some of the speakers gave broad overviews of the present state of a technology or application, while others focused on predictions about the near and long-term future.
One talk I remember clearly was given by the technology head at Ford Motor Company (sorry, I don’t remember his name). He said that in a few years, most cars on the market would not have steering wheels; they would be replaced by joysticks. It made sense, he pointed out, since the "younger generation" had been raised on video games and their controls, and would be quite comfortable with this non-traditional way of steering the car.
With the continued deployment of control-by-wire in cars, it makes a lot of sense electrically, too: no need for a steering wheel and associated assembly to turn a shaft encoder which, in turn, controls the wheel-steering mechanism via electronically controlled motors or valves. He added that he could envision that cars would next get rid of the accelerator and brake pedals, also to be replaced by hand-controller buttons or a joystick.
Besides the user-comfort factor, this change made lots of financial and production sense, he added. A joystick box is far cheaper in BOM and raw materials than a steering-wheel assembly. A repositionable joystick control also makes it easier to engineer a car to be sold world-wide, since some countries have the driver on the left and others have the driver on the right (designing and building cars for right-hand and left-hand markets is a real engineering and production headache). The joystick also frees up lots of front room, and gives the car designer much more flexibility in cabin design.
Well, long story short, we know how this prediction turned out. You don't see any standard cars without the steering wheel, which has been in use over a hundred years (it replaced the steering tiller of the first cars).
So my question is, why not? Is it due to real or perceived liability issues? Customer preference and potential discomfort? The inevitable time-lag in getting major chages adopted by the public? Regulatory iussues and car inspection regulations? The feeling of "control" that a steering wheel imparts?
I don’t know, of course, and I suspect the answer is a combination in unknown proportions of many or all of the above, and perhaps some other factors. On one side, it makes very logical sense, and on the other, it just isn’t happening.
What do you think are the reasons? After all, sometimes, the market is a strong force for change; and sometimes--due to cultural forces or innate human nature--it doesn't follow the logical dictates of the engineer or a technology.
Are there other "it absolutely makes sense" consumer-product changes which you think about, and which our technology now allows, but haven't been adopted yet? ♦