Discorporation and the Embrace of Electric Steering

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I was fortunate enough to drive a 2011 BMW X5 35d (diesel) from late 2010 until late 2021. For me, it was The Ultimate Driving Machine, BMW’s popular tagline back in the early 2000s. My old X5 put a smile on my face every time I drove it. It had amazing road feel and driving dynamics. The steering was stiff but not overly so. It felt as if it was grabbing the road. And, yes, you could feel the road via the information that was being conveyed through the steering column. Simply, it instilled in the driver a sense of confidence and security. I felt at home in the 2011 X5. Here’s why.

I learned to “drive” by driving go-karts as a kid. My father was a go-kart enthusiast who would hit the go-kart track on the weekends. Go-karts typically use a direct steering linkage where a quarter turn of the wheel would put you in a hard left or right turn. They didn’t have any suspension per se. As a result, you felt every bump and imperfection in the track surface. The steering was stiff but not overly so. There was a direct connection between driver, machine, and road. This remains true with most modern race cars today. Race car drivers need to know not only what the road is doing, but what their machine is doing in response (see the McLaren video below). There’s no better way to get a sense for what I’m talking about than to watch a car enthusiast movie like Ford v Ferrari.

In an earlier blog series Executive Function and the Art of Diesel-Powered Car Repair, I mentioned that I had to get rid of my X5 because of issues stemming from the SCR (selective catalytic reduction) system. I would have gladly kept on driving my 2011 X5 had it not been for the rather expensive SCR issues. (BMW stopped selling diesel vehicles in the US not long after I bought my X5 because of these issues with SCR systems in all of their diesel cars and SUVs.) I traded my X5 for a dependable and reliable Honda Passport. Recently, though, I got the itch to experience that amazing road feel and driving experience. I set an appointment to test drive a 2024 X5 at my local BMW dealer. What happened next was nothing short of shocking and, frankly, disturbing.

I’ve driven all manner of vehicles in my lifetime from the aforementioned g0-karts, to the Model T I actually learned to drive on, to commercial trucks equipped with drilling rigs, to vans, to sports cars. At no time did I feel as if I was in any danger. That all changed when I took that 2024 BMW X5 for a test drive. The drive feel was “vague” (as one car journalist put it). The steering was feather light with no road feel at all. There was an almost total disconnection between driver, machine, and road. Even the “boatiest” Lincolns and Cadillacs of the 1960s and 70s didn’t feel this bad. During my test drive on the highway, I constantly oversteered almost sending me into the lane next to me. I was so freaked out that I slowed down and avoided any sudden inputs to the steering wheel. I was able to navigate back to the dealership where I bid my sales person a fond farewell. I got into my Honda Passport thankful I did not cause an accident. I was in disbelief. What had happened that caused my old 2011 X5 to transmogrify into a potential death trap? I immediately did a deep dive. Here’s what I found watching YouTube videos and reading articles by car journalists.

Simply, in 2014 when the third generation BMW X5 was introduced, BMW made the switch from hydraulic steering to electric steering. So, yes, my 2011 X5 had hydraulic steering. A few short years later (in 2014) the X5 would be equipped with electric steering. Frankly, I had no idea this tectonic shift in car design was taking place as I was still merrily driving along as if everything was alright in the world of automobiles.

Hydraulic steering was introduced in the 1950s and remained the stalwart of assisted driving systems until, well, 2014 or there about. I got my driver’s license in 1975 and drove cars and trucks (outside of that Model T) equipped with hydraulic steering until the early 2010s, approximately 45 years. Hydraulic steering and the steering experience it brought was my driving worldview, it was my body or procedural memory. It changed in a heartbeat (or maybe in the skip of a heartbeat).

I’ll spare you the details concerning hydraulic vs electric steering. Suffice it to say that hydraulic steering uses an engine-driven hydraulic pump to provide driving assistance via hydraulic cylinders on the drive rack. In contrast, electric steering uses an electric motor attached directly to either to the steering column or the drive rack. In contrast to hydraulic steering, here are the many benefits that electric steering offers:

  • It costs less to manufacture and install
  • It is less complicated
  • It places less demand on the engine increasing fuel mileage
  • It is easier to maintain (e.g., no need to replace hydraulic steering fluid)
  • It allows the driver to select steering feel settings like comfort, eco, sport, etc.
  • It allows car manufactures to introduce such features as autonomous driving and lane keep assist

For car manufacturers, electric steering was a win, win, win …. Is there any downside? Yes. If not done properly, electric steering sees to it that drive feel and roadability essentially disappear or, as that car journalist put it, “becomes vague.” In essence, electric steering divorces the driver from not only the car but also the road. Can electric steering be done properly so that an automobile enthusiast does not end up in driving feel divorce court? Yes.

In a 2012 article entitled Are We Losing Touch? A Comprehensive Comparison Test of Electric and Hydraulic Steering Assist by Don Sherman, Car and Driver Magazine made the following observation:

“Replacing hydraulic assist with a computer-controlled electric motor seemed like a reasonable idea when it first surfaced. Someday every car control will be by-wire; today’s EPS [electric power steering] looks like a step in that direction. But in the past decade of driving EPS-equipped cars, we’ve found them lacking in feel, poorly tuned, and sometimes simply weird in comparison with the hydraulic-assist setups that have benefited from more than half a century of development.”

The article goes on to give us this bottom line, “This matters because steering is the driver’s main line of communication with the car; distortion in the guidance channel makes every other perception more difficult to comprehend.” Interestingly, a majority of the Car and Driver editorial staff, after comparing two 2012 BMW 5 series sedans—one with hydraulic vs one with electric steering, preferred the electric steering version. So, again, electric steering can be done in such a way that it’s not a huge departure from the tried and true hydraulic version. But here’s where the story gets interesting.

I’m pulling this from a BMW forum for enthusiasts. Apparently BMW conducted a number of surveys back in the early 2010s asking current BMW owners what their main compliant was concerning steering feel. The vast majority said that they did not like steering feel that was hard or challenging in any way. What BMW owners wanted was steering feel that was feather light at all times. And that’s what BMW went with. BMW went to the court of driving enthusiasm and argued for and received a divorce decree separating car from driver. And from what I can find online, there’s been very little pushback at all. I really had to search to find any reports on the tectonic shift that took place right under our driver’s seats. But this is not the full story.

One car enthusiast forum provided some much needed context. One forum post pointed out the obvious: in the not-too-distant-future, people will not drive cars. Ride in cars, yes. But drive them, no. Witness the fact that Elon Musk just announced his robotaxi service. The desire to “ride but not drive” has made ride services like Uber and Lyft very successful. What this means is that the shift toward electric steering is a part of the larger shift to not driving at all. So, the desire for feather light steering and various forms of autonomous driving are part of a larger desire to not drive anymore, to become entirely divorced from the car and its drive feel. Simply, electric steering is emblematic of this desire to further divorce body from mind, to become discorporated, as we continue our move into the digital age. And this is a trend that Nicholas Carr talks about in his 2014 book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. As one example, Carr argues that automated systems are divorcing commercial airline pilots from the flying feel of their aircraft in such a way that they are unprepared to both recognize trouble and to properly react to it.[1]

So, it’s a subtle sign but I would argue that the embrace of electric steering without any appreciable protest at all is a signpost on the road to disembodied posthumanism as talked about in Francis Fukuyama’s 2002 book entitled Our Posthuman Future. For me, I’m on the lookout for a new SUV that has electric steering (which is inevitable these days—the Toyota 4Runner a notable exception) but has not entirely given up on the feel of hydraulic steering. Frankly, I think that race car builder McLaren has the right idea. According to the YouTube video linked to below, McLaren did not wish to abandon the road feel and driver/car communication afforded by hydraulic steering. However, they do acknowledge that electric steering does have benefits like reducing the drag on the power of the engine. Their solution? An electric/hydraulic hybrid system, the proverbial best of both worlds.  Sadly, my pocketbook is not big enough for a street-legal race car with an electric/hydraulic hybrid system. But maybe, just maybe, other car manufacturers will take notice. Witness the fact that some car manufacturers are bailing on double clutch transmissions (a story for another day) and going back to the tried and true torque converter transmissions. For me, I’m thinking about finding a lightly used 2013 BMW petrol-fueled X5 so I can once again get my go-kart back on. Drive on Garth!

Postscript—When I was a kid, I remember seeing a PSA (public service announcement) on the TV put out by the President’s Council on Fitness. It left an impression on me. It featured an android, Z12, carrying around a box. The android would then place the box on a pedestal and open the door revealing a disembodied head. The android would retreat and the “talking head” would pontificate on all things mathematic. The talking head would then finish spouting forth with intellectualisms and call for Z12 to come and get him. The android would not appear. As this was going on, the narrator would tell us the following:

“Science says what you don’t use, you lose. Is this where we’re heading? By the year 2000, will automation and machines do away with our bodies? Maybe you’re taking life too easy. Maybe you should make things a little harder on yourself. Walk instead of taking the bus. Skip the elevator and take the stairs. Swim, play ball, or do calisthenics. Use your hands, use your body, before it’s too late.”

The year 2000 has come and gone. But this PSA was dead on. As we get very near to being driven around in robotaxis, is it already too late? For me, I’m going to find a hard driving car and me and Z12 are going for a joy ride ;-)


[1] Back in the 1980s, I was a student pilot studying for my private pilot license, which, sadly, I did not complete. My flight instructor spent an entire lesson getting me to the point that I could recognize the sights, sounds, and feelings associated with a stall situation, which is when the wing stops providing enough lift to keep the aircraft in the air. Just before the wing stalls, the airflow over the wing will become chaotic at the trailing edge. This chaotic airflow creates a discernible buffet and burble which you can feel, hear, and see in the form of certain vibrations coming through the control stick. Being able to intuit an imminent stall is a critical skill that a pilot must acquire. A pilot must be attached to and communicating with, the aircraft via the pilot’s body. The same holds true for such things like intuitively recognizing the very subtle changes in aircraft engine noises and vibrations that might signal, for instance, carburetor icing, magneto malfunction, fuel starvation, etc. From my experience, flying is a very embodied experience. And up until recently, driving was very embodied as well. Maybe being embodied is just going the way of buggy whips. Z12, I’m ready to leave now … Z12!