Mercedes-Benz displayed, at the 1996 Paris Motor Show, its F200 coupe as its vision of the luxury car of the 21st century. As such it bristled with stylistic and electronic refinements. Of these, the most radical was ‘drive-by-wire’ controls which threatened to make the steering wheel a thing of the past.
The futuristic coupe therefore lacked a ‘wheel and pedals’. Instead, steering, braking and acceleration were controlled by a pair of ergonomically designed aircraft-style joysticks. One was traditionally positioned in the centre console and the other in the door recess.
The pioneering control system, which was coupled to the car’s fully active suspension system, dispensed with traditional hydraulic and mechanical linkages. Instead the driver’s commands were transmitted electronically by advanced computerized ‘drive-by-wire’ technology.
The car was steered by the driver moving the joysticks to the left or right, while alternative forward and backward movements controlled acceleration and braking. Elimination of the steering wheel, steering column and medals not only reduced the rish of injury to occupants in the event of a frontal collision, but also allowed for a more comfortable seating position for the cosseted driver.
Significantly this arrangement could end the need for separate left- and right-hand-drive vehicles. The F200 could be driven from either front seat with all controls and the advanced digital driver display capable of being switched from one side to the other electronically, even when the car was on the move!
The familiar rear-view mirror was also a thing of the past. Instead video cameras kept a watchful eye on approaching traffic and the images were displayed on a video screen which was located in the centre of the dashboard.
To increase driver comfort, the glass roof could be lightened or darkened, depending on weather conditions, at the touch of a button. This was possible as a result of its laminar construction in which conductive polymers sandwiched between the glass layers reacted to a small electric current.
Externally the F200’s nose, radiator grille and headlights anticipated the company’s S-Class cars expected for 1998. There were no door handles, entry was gained by the use of a radio-controlled magnetic card that opened the doors as the driver approached the vehicle. These were hydraulically activated and of the upward-opening scissor type which ensured that there was plenty of room for entry.
Back at the turn of the century the Mercedes was the most influential car of its day. Will the 200’s joystick controls make a similar impact on its latter-day contemporaries?
Wood, Jonathan (1997) Concept Cars, Paragon, ISBN 0-75252-084-9.