A 394-horsepower V-12 with no steering wheel or pedals? Yes, that sounds like a great idea, or so some brain geniuses at Mercedes though it 1996 when the automaker debuted the F200 Imagination concept, which had two joysticks in lieu of those traditional controls. Yes, imagine. But just two years later, those dreams got a little more real with this 1998 Mercedes SL-Class which engineers converted to a fully-functional joystick control system as a drive-by-wire technology testbed.
Called side sticks, the two joysticks were in fact on either side of the driver Mercedes likened them to video game controllers, and more appealingly, jet controls. “A technical bridge to aviation,” they called it. In that lucky R129, which still resides in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, you could steer, accelerate, turn, honk the horn, activate the turn signals, and terrify passengers by yelling, “Someone stole the steering wheel!”
Technically, you could drive with one stick, both sticks, either stick. The drive-by-wire-and-nothing-else system had the driver pushing the stick forward to go, back to brake, left or right to go…left or right. This setup meant it was also possible to drive while sitting shotgun.
“The R129 with side-stick control was the fully operational result of many years [our emphasis] of research on driving without steering wheel and pedals at Mercedes-Benz,” the company’s own account of the car says. “Projects such as this exclusively electronically-controlled SL are an expression of the consistent will to innovation – and bear witness to the fact that Daimler assumes responsibility for the permanently ongoing development of the car as a cutting-edge mobility system.”
The concept is grounded in common sense, but grounded nonetheless. It would eliminate quite a few parts inside and outside the interior, such as the steering wheel and pedals, and you’d simply move the sticks from the left to the right to change from left- to right-hand drive. In this case, engineers used the extra real estate on the R129’s dashboard to add a pull-out tray with a very late-90s mobile workstation.
Presumably the passenger also could save the day should the driver become incapacitated. It could also be confusing for police: “Which one of you was driving?” And you’d point to the sober, or more sober, person.
But let’s let Mercedes explain the system in its own period-correct, oddly translated press release from the original F200:
“Drive-by-wire is a technical solution entailing consequences for the interior, for example. If there is no more steering wheel and no more pedals, the passengers have more space and thus more comfort. It also serves safety since the cockpit and the footwell can be designed completely different.
“The F200 Imagination embodies the thoroughgoing networking of electronic systems. One result is its advanced driving dynamics control. The electronics recognize the driver’s commands as requests for a certain driving state – accelerate, brake, steer, reverse and decide in a flash how to comply with the commands in the best and safest manner.”
Also in a flash, people, and by people we mean Mercedes customers, failed to clamor for side sticks. No good idea goes unpunished.
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