Ferrari F10 Steering Wheel Looks Like a Robot Barfed on It

Is this the worst interface ever designed?

ferrari steering wheel

Every year, Ferrari fields a team in the Formula One championship, and dumps around $400 million into developing and racing the car. So you'd think that the steering wheel—perhaps the car's most crucial point of contact, where a human turns all that R&D into championship trophies—would be a masterpiece of interface design. And you would be wrong. But don't worry, there's probably a switch or knob on the Ferrari F10 steering wheel that lets you correct your thinking.

It's a comedically disjointed, confusing mess. It seems like to understand this thing, you'd have to have the superhuman visual acuity of dragonfly, the IQ of a theoretical physicist, and the creative maturity of a 10-year-old with a box of crayons and lots of free time. Frankly, it's amazing that the drivers don't crash these things twice every lap.

Here's a video of one of the engineers explaining all the know-how that goes into this monstrosity:

The guy is talking about how this season, Formula One no longer has KERS—that is, the regenerative braking systems that provide an added power boost, and made driving more complex. And so the steering wheel has been greatly "simplified" at the behest of the driver—in this case, Filipe Massa, Ferrari's number two driver. Massa, interface designer that he is, ordered up a slew of handy features like a drink button. This is like what happens when Homer Simpson designs a car.

Granted, Formula One drivers would rather not take their hands off the steering wheel, but surely there's a better solution. What if you accidentally pushed the button to lower the front flaps, when all you wanted to do was to was request a cherry Slurpee? And what if you accidentally set the fuel mix to eight rather than ten—which would be easy to do since there's thirteen different settings.

In a sport where one second can be the difference between finishing first and 10th, you can't afford to be pushing buttons by accident. And this steering wheel basically invites that.

Here's a tip, guys: Hire Ideo, or Frog, or Smart Design. Pay them a million bucks. That's a rounding error for you. Have them create the most elegant interface they've ever designed. And watch the championships roll in. Lord knows its been a while since you were winning.

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  • Fred Schechter

    @Stuart I only suggest the capacitive surface as a bleeding edge solution (I should've made that clear). The only way that would be feasible would be to have both capacitive interface areas, with pre-defined areas for tactile feedback (ridges to guide finger movement) with a perfect augmented reality overlay. There needs to be verifiable obviously index-able interface areas (And yes, dials while bouncing around a corner at 3-4 G's are simply ridiculous for differential adjustment and more).

    As for the driver's requests, they're based on the engineer's typical mid race/test changes over the profile of the race. A good example would be, ask Scott Speed, who's in charge of an F1 race. In his (And many other driver's estimation) they are making adjustments according to the engineering staff during the race (rather than more seat of the pants adjustments a la Indycar type events, where the feel focus is on the driver). They must accommodate typical changes and adjustments they will be told to make often within 100 meters of the command being given (remember this distance can be covered in under 1 second!)

    I should add, as an industrial designer and a horrible race car driver, an F1 wheel to me is the pinnacle of so many things. It's still a horrible kluge, filled with status, technology, and design sacrifices. Definitely something less than a 39 page book to learn to drive a car (Even an F1 car)

  • Stuart Waterman

    @Fred - Wouldn't the capacitive surface on the wheel raise the problem that the 10g buttons are intended to avoid (triggering by incidental contact)? I think a voice interface to the car systems could be easily activated and deactivated to avoid conflict with radio communication and the odd "oh sh*t" moment... But you point is well taken - the stress on the driver during race conditions is extraordinary, particularly in the confines of an F1 cockpit.

    The buttons are one thing, but it's the rotary knobs that seem to have the most potential for driver error.

    In a recent article by Conor Daley (Derek Daley's son), he recounted his father's story about reporting for his test drive of a Jordan F1 car, and being presented with a 39 page user's guide - to the steering wheel.

    @Kail - I'm not sure the drivers are the ones requesting the functionality. I suspect it's driven by the engineering team. With many automated onboard control systems forbidden by the current rules, the driver is being asked to perform these functions. (And perhaps that's appropriate from a sporting standpoint.)

  • Fred Schechter

    Yes, interface design is key in F1 steering wheels, and they do cost an armful. A few notes on interface design for these items.
    1. All buttons must be rated well over 10G's (at least 3 lb's of force to activate) or more (so that they don't accidentally go off in a corner/light contact, etc).
    2. Voice command is pretty tough to do when you're being squished around like that, and trying to communicate with your team (so as not to confuse the car, just imagine if you said the word brake, did you mean break, it something broken, do you need more bias, do you need time out?)
    While these are some of the best athletes in the world (go look at how they train, what their resting heart-rates are versus in action (most of them sustain around 200bpm for the entire race)). An easy example would be to play operation for 2 hours, never missing a beat, while running the whole time on a treadmill, while the treadmill was on a roller coaster (zero exaggeration).
    With these constraints, and the constant movement in the cockpit (keep in mind, the steering wheel always rotates, so your interface itself is constantly in motion, though your hand position relative to the buttons is fixed).
    I would love to see a better solution (with a single button I managed to spray my own eyes and face shield in a hairpin repeatedly in one race) so yes, an improved solution would be welcome.

    My only decent answer to date, would be to have a heads up display in the helmet (far better than the simple LED's tried years ago), that has a virtual reality segment like the LAYAR iphone plugin. That would both give the driver vastly improved information, and cut down on cockpit clutter, while moving to a more capacitive solution on the wheel itself for hand control. At that point, simple thumb and index finger gestures could ease some of the finer tuning options (nice tactile bumps on the touchpad for obvious indexing, and conductive thread in the fingertips for contact).

    Maybe a soaked visor will be a thing of the past (finally).

    It's a truly fascinating predicament for interface design. I do agree, I'd love to see the big time consultancies tackle this issue. Meanwhile, the complexity of a modern day F1 car will continue to boggle the mind at full speed.

    (Forza Ferrari!)

  • Vesa Metsätähti

    It might look complex and not aesthetic but that does not necessarily mean it is an usability horror. On contrary, good usability for F1 driver could be that he has access to all functions w/o changing state of his steering wheel (now that would be horror) and see the status w/ a glance. Learnability is no issue for him since this is a tool he needs very accurate controls with anyways.

    As Kail pointed out it could be made more elegant, but better solution would be getting rid of the choices by eliminating need for them instead of affecting UI.

  • Kail Jethmalani

    @Stuart I don't disagree that the system could be simpler, or more elegant. Given that the drivers are the ones requesting the functionality, and provide substantial input into the design of the steering wheels, they're essentially getting what they want. If they wanted voice controls, i'm sure certain teams would have evaluated the possibility of providing it, and probably implemented it already.

    As a drawback to voice control, consider that providing multiple inputs via voice isn't nearly as practical as using your hands - you could easily adjust 2, if not 3 parameters very quickly using your hands. Lets say a driver is fiddling with brake balance and differential on their way through a chicane, adjusting them on the way in and on the way out, in less than 2-3 seconds. The time to provide those 4 commands via voice would HAVE to be less than the current method for it to be a viable alternative, or it wouldn't be worth the effort to change. This doesn't even consider the inconvenience (and perhaps impossibility) of speaking on the radio while having to adjust certain functionality.

  • Stuart Waterman

    Here are a few blog entries on just this problem, including some steering wheel induced driver misadventures:

    Misadventure 1: Takuma Sato at the British Grand Prix

    Misadventure 2: Mario Dominguez - is that the radio or the drink button?

    Misadventure 3: Takuma Sato again! Turkish GP this time.

    More on F1 steering wheel madness and a possible solution. (And did you know those steering wheels run about $80K?!)

    Stuart Waterman

  • Kail Jethmalani

    Considering most drivers are changing these settings on a lap by lap basis, it makes sense to have easy access to them all, even if it isn't the most elegant or pretty method. How pray tell would you change the design?

    As for the drink button, would you rather the drivers carry their drink bottles between their legs while they zoom around at 200mph or the safer option of using a button to start a flow from the fluid reservoir?