Born from jets: Saab once built a car with a joystick


Saab 9000 with joystick driver control Photo: Goodwood

Saab 9000 with joystick driver control Photo: Goodwood

Saab has a quirky history that ended too soon with General Motors' Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization the end of last decade. For years, Saab built cars and did things its own way. And one time, the Swedish premium brand even built a car with a joystick control.

Goodwood author Gary Axon recalled climbing behind the wheel of one of the unusual prototype cars and described piloting a Saab 9000 with just a joystick. The prototype car came to life under a program run from 1987 to 1995 called the pan-European Prometheus, or "Programme for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety." (A mouthful of an acronym.) The program's goal brought European automakers together with government money to develop safer, cleaner, and quieter cars. 

Some of the inventions resulted in today's modern technologies including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, night-vision camera systems, and more. Saab? It made the joystick-controlled car, among other contributions. The reason for such a radical shift away from the steering wheel was Saab's extensive research into "active" steering systems. 

Rather than a steering wheel in front of the driver, the view consisted of large gauges, a place for the airbag, and a joystick just to the right of the driver's right hand. Axon said his first go around a test track in Hethel, England (while working with Lotus) wasn't perfect; he overcompensated with every turn. Eventually, he caught on quickly and called it a "pleasurable" and "rewarding" experience. 

But, the joystick was doomed from its inception. The self-driving car and associated technology turned the joystick into a redundancy. Daimler had already begun work on self-driving technology under the program. 

Yet, we can partially thank Prometheus for a number of today's modern vehicle conveniences and safety features. Nevertheless, it doesn't make Saab's creation any less cool.

 
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