The steering wheel, a technological symbol of another time?

In the collective exhibition “Palace of Imaginary Cities” held at the Contemporary Art Center of the Ferme du Buisson in Noisiel, Filipe Vilas-Boas presented three works between March and July. One of them, created in 2022, is called Data driven. without hands. Attached to a white wall, placed at an equal distance from each other, nine steering wheels corresponding to different car brands rotate endlessly.

They turn right, then left, then return to their “go straight ahead” position, then turn right or left again. Apparently they each spend their time “driving” a virtual car in some kind of Google Maps. The screen on the side wall shows the nine toy cars in motion, each driving to their chosen destination by a visitor.

The artist’s intention

The text on the room sheet accompanying the work specifies:

“As autonomous driving units, Filipe Vilas-Boas offers the work Data driven. without hands, to passively watch the shuttlecocks make the journeys we ask them to. At the beginning of an era where excess consumption of energy can make us travel less, the work invites us to think of an infinity of destinations. Between reverie and laziness, the artist questions the relationship between people and the automation of machines. »

I had the chance to meet Filipe Vilas-Boas. He had described his work with car steering wheels to me without telling me either the title or his intention, without “revealing”… then I was faced with his work at La Ferme du Buisson.

As soon as I entered the room, I saw nine steering wheels continuing their lives as steering wheels, like “in a video game for steering wheels”, stripped of drivers and cars. Drive a while longer. Take another trip. With the energy of despair. And even if it’s just a car avatar ride in a virtual space. And even if you, in the absence of a driver, to do this trick again, you have to become the useless and almost ridiculous toy of “data”. The sensors and software become the real drivers, whether in this work or in real life. There are no hands. The software fed with streams of “data” does not need an interface like a steering wheel to take control of a vehicle, whether virtual or real.

On the screen you can follow the movements of the virtual cars symbolized concretely by the steering wheels.
The artist’s website

The autonomous vehicle and the end of the wheel

The real vehicle is on its way to becoming autonomous. No more steering wheel at the end of the story. Elon Musk is said to have changed the automotive paradigm by putting software at the center. An autonomous kit car is roughly: sensors scattered throughout the car’s structure, a connected computer and its internal software that is remotely updated, an engine, brakes, steering. And a cabin possibly. Of course, a battery must be added to supply the assembly with energy.

The sensors transmit all necessary data about the surrounding world. The software receives them, processes them and takes direct control: the brakes, the engine and the steering. And then no mirror, no pedals… and the disappearance of the steering wheel.

Birth of the steering wheel

This is what Wikipedia says when you search for “steering wheel”:

“In a car, the steering wheel is the mechanical part that allows the driver to choose the direction of the vehicle. The steering wheel is therefore part of the steering mechanism of the vehicle. It was first introduced in 1894, in the Paris-Rouen event, by Mr. Alfred Vacheron and his number 24.

The car was a Panhard 4CV. Does this mean that the invention of the steering wheel is consecutive to the appearance of the first cars? It looks good. In any case, it is said that by 1905, a decade after its first appearance, the steering wheel had become practically standard in automobile production.

Panhard car driven by Ivor Bertie Guest, 1ᵉʳ Baron Wimborne (1835-1914), circa 1902.
Lafayette Archive/V&A Museum/WikimediaCC BY

I saw Data driven. without hands and I thought about Blasted foundationthe fourthe volume of the cycle of science fiction novels “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov published in 1982:

“Trevize placed his hands against the contours drawn on the board, the contours positioned so he could do it effortlessly.

“Close your eyes, relax. We will establish the connection.”

With your hands?

hands? Why not ?

They were the hands, the active surface of the body, the hands that touched and manipulated the universe.

The man thought with his hands. It was his hands that responded to his curiosity, probing and squeezing and turning and lifting and weighing. »

Take the wheel

The expression “I take the wheel” says it well, putting your hands on the wheel of a “beautiful car” is still a dream for some drivers. We can reread this text by Asimov written in XXe century as a simple and immediate description of the driver’s relationship with the car, at the wheel, at the hands. Films and series based on this relationship are legion with scenes – among them chases – of anthology.

The steering wheel as a symbol of the civilization of the car, Trente Glorieuses. After this reading, Data driven. without hands remains for me: steering wheel desperately trying to rediscover together, and even “pretending”, the good old days when they were the kings before the drivers disappeared.

Read more: When Bill Fontana brings the bells of Notre-Dame back to life

An extension of the body

Between the invention of Alfred Vacheron in 1894 and Blasted foundation in 1982 a miracle happened. The steering wheel became the norm in 1905. Then it invaded the world. Of course, there are many differences between a luxury car today and this original steering wheel, but they remain marginal. It is still and always a car with a steering wheel to control the two steering wheels. The power steering completes the unit, and it then meets the driver perfectly, the precision of his movements, his expectations, his understanding of the volume and shapes of the vehicle in motion, and even at high speed.

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Was Alfred Vacheron aware of this? With the steering wheel, he completed the car, literally making it an extension of the body through his hands. With Filipe Vilas-Boas as Isaac Asimov, driving always involves the hands that establish this intuitive and sensitive connection, indeed extraordinary, between the machine and its driver. How do we analyze the exceptional quality of the steering wheel’s adequacy as an interface between the car and the driver?

The steering wheel as a human-machine interface

The state of technology in 1982 allowed Isaac Asimov to envision this possible future for the steering wheel. Tactile and haptic interfaces are still young, but they are already there, working on the interaction between our hands and technology beyond keyboards. They always do it straight. Vincent Hayward’s work with touch and haptics from that time led him to the Academy of Sciences today.

In fact, as Wendy Mackay shows in her introductory course on human-machine interfaces (HMI) at the Collège de France in 2022, HMIs have undergone dazzling changes in recent decades and have accompanied the massive spread of digital technologies in the world. . Finally, Isaac Asimov perhaps describes the touchscreen of our computers or smartphones more than the control station of a motor vehicle today.

Filipe Vilas-Boas turns the game around

A car, a steering wheel, a driver: all configurations are possible today. Car racing games use a steering wheel connected to a gaming console. They hold the driver and the steering wheel. The car is no more than an avatar in a virtual universe constructed of data. Filipe Vilas-Boas removes the real car and driver. Streams of data flow from the virtual space, that of the car’s avatar, to the motorized steering wheel. In an absurd inversion, instead of being the heart of the steering, it runs and spins on empty. The third configuration is the autonomous car. Neither steering wheel nor driver. Is Filipe Vilas-Boas warning us of the fate that awaits us? The steering wheel?

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