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Axon's Automotive Anorak: That time Saab built a car with a joystick

20th May 2018
Gary Axon

It was quite an induction. Just a few days into my brand new job at Saab’s HQ as the Product Strategy Manager, and I was driving along the A11 to Hethel in Norfolk to test a couple of exceptional and top-secret engineering prototypes.

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The prototypes in question were a pair of unusual Saab 9000s the first of which comes under scrutiny here. This engineering ‘mule’ was being worked on by Saab’s far-sighted Swedish engineers, in conjunction with the talented technicians of Lotus Engineering, hence the trip to Hethel. 

This first Saab 9000 I was set to drive on the private Lotus test track at Hethal was part of the Swedish premium car maker’s contribution to the Prometheus Project. Prometheus was a pan-European programme in the late 1980s-early 1990s that drew funding and expertise from governments, selected European carmakers and suppliers to make vehicles safer, cleaner and quieter. In an automotive industry notorious for contrived acronyms, Prometheus was a horror, standing for Programme for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety.

Run as a large R&D programme between 1987 and 1995, the Prometheus project involved a number of European car and OEM vehicle component producers working closely together and sharing the results of their findings, including Daimler-Benz, Jaguar, the PSA Groupe and BMW, as well as Saab.

The pan-European Prometheus programme was a collaborative quest to improve the road-users' lot by exploiting modern electronics and telecommunications, with these new technologies claimed to improve road safety by 30 per cent in Europe. Technical innovations included adaptive cruise control, driver status monitoring, lane change warnings and IR camera systems to identify obstacles and potential hazards in low light or poor conditions; all features that many years later have now become features and common options on many prestige cars. Even fully autonomous cars formed part of the study group (under Daimler-Benz), 30 years ahead of today’s developments.

One of Saab’s Prometheus contributions reflected the Swedish marque’s aviation roots, with an experimental joystick alternative to the conventional steering wheel, potentially consigning that component into the history books. Joystick control was rooted in Saab's research into intelligent or 'active' steering systems – one of the projects it was assigned under the joint programme.

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Climbing into a specially adapted left-hand-drive Saab 9000 automatic with a conventional dashboard carrying normal instruments, was an unusual and memorable experience. Ahead of me, instead of a familiar steering wheel, there was a giant head, face and knee airbag (located where the steering column would usually be) with a central joystick, similar to those used in aircraft and gaming. Controls for the wipers, lighting, indicators, and so on where comfortably relocated into a cluster on the door panel.

After a blisteringly quick lap around the Lotus Hethal test track with a Swedish Prometheus engineering colleague behind the ‘wheel’, to demonstrate just how easy it was to control the Saab with a joystick, it was my turn to take the helm.

My first few faltering metres in the 9000 were an embarrassing zig-zag down the straight, over-compensating for every directional change with the joystick. However, after a surprisingly short time and distance, maneuvering the Saab with the joystick control became totally intuitive and was a pleasurable and rewarding experience, one that today’s younger ‘joystick generation’ would feel totally at home with.

The rapidly-approaching development of the fully automated driverless car, however, has now leap-frogged the need and potential for a joystick system to control a vehicle, so the time, energy and money invested in the feasibility of this technology was alas all to no avail, unlike some of the other new advances developed under the Prometheus programme.

The second Saab 9000 prototype I also drove at Lotus that same day may have been a clearer glimpse into the future of motoring, with a revolutionary suspension system, but more of that anon in a future weekly Anorak here, so please do stay tuned.

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