Remember poor Takuma Sato at the British GP? How he hit the wrong button on the steering wheel during his race start preparation and killed the engine? (More in this post) How about Mario Dominguez' adventure at Champ Car's Denver GP? Admit it - deep down inside you thought to yourself, "If I was getting paid that much to drive, I'd sure as hell remember which button was which!" Or words to that effect.
Well, the August 05 issue of F1 Racing has an excellent article by Steve Matchett about the F1 steering wheel, circa 2005 (using a BAR-Honda wheel like Sato's as an example), and all I can say is that wheel is a 10 inch window into user interface hell. Check out these pictures of a Ferrari wheel, with and without the gloved hands of the driver.
On the BAR wheel, there are so many buttons in so little space, that some buttons have to serve more than one function, depending on what the car is doing at the time. And imagine fumbling with those rotary switches on the Ferrari wheel with gloves on, while experiencing 4 or 5 g's, shifting gears, and oh, yeah, steering the bloody car! Here's a typical scenario, as described by Steve Matchett:
"While [the car] is dancing on the edge of adhesion the driver will be both down-shifting with his left hand and adjusting differential settings with his right. He'll be increasing lock to stabilize the car under braking, then reducing lock to catch any oversteer at the corner exit."
Surely a voice control interface could be used for many of these functions. (Why not? I talk to myself while I'm driving anyway.) Leave a few (larger, easier to use) buttons for simple functions like the kill switch and the pit lane speed limiter. The wheel already contains a small computer - add simple voice recognition software and a bluetooth connection to a noise-cancelling microphone/headset built into the driver's helmet. I'd bet that the driver would make fewer mistakes (Right, Takuma? Mario?) and improve his focus on the real job - driving! And here's a bonus for the engineers - by replacing the hard-wired switches and knobs interface with a software-defined interface, it would be easy to change the interface as needed, without remanufacturing an $80K (!) wheel.