If like me you have lived in Australia your whole life and are familiar with mainly domestic or Japanese manufactured cars like Holden, Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru or Nissan you may not realise that some European cars sold in Australia have an indicator stalk where the windscreen wiper stalk belongs (on the left).
I recently drove my partner’s Volkswagen Golf, a make and model manufactured and assembled in Germany, a left-hand drive (LHD) market, and consequently has an indicator stalk on the left side of the steering column. At almost every intersection I would activate the windscreen wipers instead of the indicator prompting a small fright and great embarrassment.
I pondered why Volkswagen would put the indicator stalk on the wrong side of the steering wheel. After some research, it seems Japan and Australia, are part of a minority of countries that have left-hand traffic (driving on the left-hand side of the road) with the rest of the world adopting right-hand traffic.
When it comes to which side of the car the steering wheel is on, the general rule is that the driver will be positioned so that they sit closest to the road’s centre line (“Right- and left-hand traffic”, 2016). In Germany, a country of right-hand traffic, the driver will control the car from the left-hand side and be known as a left-hand drive.
Discussion regarding the control and instrument designs suggest the most ergonomic placement of the indicator stalk is closest to the driver’s door so as to allow the driver to indicate with one hand while the other is free to operate the gear shifter. So, it could be said that a European car in the Australian is less ergonomic than the domestic options.
Speaking in basic terms there are three distinct processes to car production; design, manufacture and assembly (Toyota Motors, 2016). Since the majority of the world is a left-hand drive market and four of the five top auto-producing countries are left-hand drive markets (“2015 Statistics | OICA”, 2015) the entire manufacturing process typically favours LHD vehicles due to economies of scale.
During assembly, factories will operate the line specifically for one or the other; switching the line to right-hand drive (RHD) cars only on certain days, weeks or even months depending on the demand.
Manufacturers have said there are great costs and complexities in engineering for both LHD and RHD (Beissmann, 2016). If producers were to manufacture all parts separately for both LHD and RHD vehicles it would require two of every mould and likely two of every tool or robot.
The placement of an indicator stalk may be the most noticeable but there are other functionalities of European cars that are not always mirrored for RHD markets (World Standards, 2016) as the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits:
- Bonnet release in the passenger footwell
- Fuel tank filling on the passenger side
- Handbrake remains left of centre
- In-built radio volume control closest to passenger
- Driver footwell smaller than passenger’s
- Manual gear pattern favours LHD
Volkswagen has evaluated which parts, equipment, buttons and features need to be converted in the Golf model to satisfy a right-hand drive country’s specific safety standards. These standards then become the minimum conversions necessary to enter that market. All other convertible features and functionality are evaluated through a cost/benefit analysis.
The costs of mirroring the instruments on Volkswagen’s steering column have clearly outweighed all potential benefits and as such the RHD market are delivered the same setup as the LHD market.
It’s clear that when the decisions are between ergonomics and economics, ergonomics is last across the line. I will just have to deal with the embarrassment around every corner.
2015 Statistics | OICA. (2015). Oica.net. Retrieved 18 October 2016, from http://www.oica.net/category/production-statistics/2015-statistics/
Beissmann, T. (2016). GM CEO promises more right-hand-drive vehicles | CarAdvice. CarAdvice.com. Retrieved 19 October 2016, from http://www.caradvice.com.au/383585/gm-ceo-promises-more-right-hand-drive-vehicles/
Right- and left-hand traffic. (2016). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 19 October 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-_and_left-hand_traffic
Toyota Motors,. (2016). TOYOTA MOTOR EAST JAPAN, INC. | Process until cars are completed. Toyota-ej.co.jp. Retrieved 18 October 2016, from http://www.toyota-ej.co.jp/english/process/
World Standards,. (2016). Trivia about driving on the left — World Standards. World Standards. Retrieved 18 October 2016, from http://www.worldstandards.eu/cars/trivia-about-driving-left/