A serious bit of clowning around

Blog post posted on 31/07/18 |

Have you ever wondered why cars are the way they are? There are of course lots of different types of cars, with various engine types and seating configurations, front- or rear-wheel drive, 4-wheel drive and a huge range of optional equipment. Ignore all that stuff for the moment; I’m talking about the fundamentals of car design. With very few exceptions, they all follow the same basic formula, in that the controls are positioned in such a way that they allow only one person to determine the speed and direction of travel. I know there are certain ‘common-sense’ reasons why we’ve settled on this formula, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it terribly boring, and wonders why we haven’t explored a broader range of solutions.

Why shouldn’t there be more than one driver? For all sorts of challenges in life, people are very quick to offer such platitudes as ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and ‘two heads are better than one’, so why not for driving a car? There might be benefits for road safety. Some drivers can be very ignorant of others. Perhaps if they were made to coordinate their actions with someone else’s, their decision-making would become less selfish. They’d certainly have to slow down and plan ahead to make sure that both co-drivers were singing from the same hymn sheet. We have dual controls for learners, so why shouldn’t all cars have them? An extra set of eyes, limbs and reflexes can’t be bad. And what’s to say that all the seats have to face the same way? In fact why can’t cars have a driver’s seat and controls at both ends? You’d be able to drive forwards into a parking space, and forwards out of it again. In a bit of a tight spot? Get a friend to steer the other end for you, adding four-wheel steering into your car’s manoeuvring repertoire. All the major car manufacturers are trying to make cars driverless when they should really be developing technology to accommodate multiple drivers.

I’d better qualify all this by admitting that I’ve always had a penchant for the absurd. Adult life seems to place an awful lot of value on seriousness, logic and conformity, and the occasional indulgence in the pursuit of the wacky is necessary to redress the balance. Given that there are oddballs like me out there, we can be thankful that there’s a bizarre cottage industry devoted to indulging our avant-garde motoring fantasies, within the relative safety of an off-road environment.

My recent birthday treat was a day out at the Auto Circus in Birmingham. The guys who run it clearly are a little bit unhinged, but there’s no denying their spirit of innovation, or their mechanical prowess. Their reimagining of how a car could work has resulted in a fleet of formerly mundane motors re-engineered in extreme ways, including a Corsa with castors, and a Punto that turns in the opposite direction to the steering wheel. Why? Because why not. They do have a rather nice old Peugeot, notable for its comfortable leather seats and comfortingly unmodified condition, but this is for use in a blindfolded driving challenge! These cars were all great fun, but for me, not the stars of the show. The real fun was to be had with a couple of marvellous contraptions that required a bit of team work to be driven to their full potential.

As its name suggests, the Push-Me-Pull-You is an aberration similar to the creature from Dr Doolittle, except in this case, it was apparently the result of illegitimate inbreeding between a couple of Ford KAs. Having two front ends facing in opposite directions gives it ability to turn in very tight circles, or to be driven diagonally, as determined by the relative directions of the two steering wheels. Successful manoeuvring of the Push-Me-Pull-You is governed by the level of cooperation between the two drivers, so if you’re the kind of couple who can’t even agree on whose turn it is to cook dinner, then you might find you’re not very good at this.

If that describes you and yours, then you might get on better with driving the Double Decker, which involves little in the way of conscious cooperation but a fair amount of trust. Constructed by bolting one car on top of another, with the steering in the top car and the pedals in the bottom one, the Double Decker is actually a bit more like a ship: the amount of body roll is enough to induce nausea in those without fully developed sea legs, and communication between the ‘bridge’ and the ‘engine room’ would benefit from some sort of intercom system. In the absence of such a system, progress around the slalom course requires both drivers to communicate using some kind of telepathy.

As it turned out, the necessary coordination came surprisingly quickly, although this was partly due to the knowledge that there was nothing of any importance to collide with! However, it was also a product of both drivers actually having to think about the relationship between speed and steering, and to allow a little bit of extra margin for error. Now, I’m not really trying to draw a parallel between the Auto Circus and advanced driving, but what made the whole day interesting was the way that each of the various contraptions, deranged as they are, highlights a particular aspect of car control that we all take for granted in our daily driving, and confronts you with it in a way that a normal car never could without landing you in a ditch. Anyway, this is all getting a bit too serious now so I must add that it was also brilliant fun!

By Gary Bates, IAM RoadSmart’s marketing manager