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In my alternate Earth, which follows our timeline almost consistently, I want one of the differences being that the de facto standard for cars is that they have rear steering wheels instead of the front steering wheels we have. With rear steering wheels I mean the two back wheels which give direction to the vehicle.

What single change in the (technology) history would make this happen?

The earliest the change, the better.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 5 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ Just a note: You don't need a change in history, you need a change in pre-history. Before motor cars there were carts and wagons and carriages, and they had the steering wheels at the front for millennia. When the first horseless carriages appeared they were actually made by carriage builders, who naturally carried over the pattern. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    2 days ago
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue even earlier than that... we would have had to evolve to have our eyes on the back of our heads (while the rest of our anatomy stayed the same). Otherwise, you would have to fight against our physiology. $\endgroup$
    – c1moore
    yesterday

15 Answers 15

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Rear-steering wheels are dynamically unstable, that is, when the car is moving forward, any small misalignment of rear wheels position vs fixed front wheel axis will cause a force that would turn them to the side they've got turned. This is an unstable equilibrium and will not last long enough without any control. Yet, should one of those people trying to drive such a car EVER drive backwards, he will discover that the controls are now easier, with the result of front-steered car. Therefore, what you ask for is plain impossible.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 5 at 12:46
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Super Patent laws

As Vesper already pointed out, front-wheel steering is far superior. So if left to develop freely, cars would quickly converge on that. The solution must be in society then, not technology. We already have laws that prevent use of technology by society in general: Patent laws.

In your alternate history "alternate Edison" has successfully lobbied for strong and perpetual patent laws. These give total control to the patent holder. Now, "Lightning" front-steering has been patented by some misanthropic inventor that feels the masses should not be allowed to enjoy his inventions. He only licenses it for the production of supercars etc.

The entire car industry has then banded together to create an international standard based on a rear-steering bar (RSB) that has become the global standard.

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    $\begingroup$ The word patent means "open". The entire idea behind a patent of invention is that the inventor discloses their invention to the public, in exchange for a time-limited legally enforced monopoly, The inventor gets to enjoy their monopoly protected by the state. The state gets to enjoy having the invention fully disclosed, so that after the time limited monopoly expires everyone can use it. What would be the interest of the state to grant a everlasting monopoly? (And how would one enforce such silly laws upon notorious patent infringers, such as China now or the USA yesterday?) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 4 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP And yet patents often have the opposite effect, delaying wide adoption of a technology until the patent has expired, even if it was barely clearing the "not totally obvious" bar. And I'm assuming the state's interest was receiving some generous donations or perhaps the view that intellectual property should not be disowned after x years anymore than real property. $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Aug 4 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Vesper: Patents are intellectual property, and don't just end when the original holder dies. The rights get inherited by their heirs. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 4 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP KILL IT WITH FIRE!!! I mean wipe entire heritage, or at least make it so that whoever holds the patent would let someone else build front-steered cars under threat of extermination, but with some patent fees paid. Would take less effort than standardizing a system that would crash at 20mph and forcing everyone to use it. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 4 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Replace "patent" with "copyright" in that paragraph and a lot of the reasoning still holds. Yet at least in the US we're at life+70 for copyright. I can easily envision a world where a company gets enough political power to keep extending the life of patents, and generations later it's been normalised in the mind of the public. $\endgroup$
    – Chuu
    2 days ago
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Very early invention of actively stabilized steering.

The only way to drive a rear steering vehicle without constant high levels of attention and continual steering inputs is if the steering is actively stabilized.

This need not require electronics, as we might tend to think today; a "fifth wheel" under the center of the vehicle can act as a combination of stabilizer and steering controller, giving the stability of well designed front steering and the maneuverability of rear steering. The linkage, being all mechanical, might well date back to the Renaissance (equivalent) or even Classical period, whenever someone was clever enough to invent this.

However, rear steering doesn't fit well with vehicles pulled by animals, so there might also be a case where the inventor had a very skittish cart horse, and invented a way for the horse to push the cart while remaining enclosed in a lightweight "stall". Tiller steering (which evolved into a steering wheel, eventually) allows control of the horse without dealing with long reins and the slack in them.

Yes, the system is complex -- but first is best might well win the day, or the "sheltered horse" carriages might have competed with "horse-tail" types up until someone needed to mount a large, heavy steam boiler where one person could both tend the fire and steer the machine.

Should also note, from comments, that Cugnot's tricycle, the very first steam powered land vehicle (first "automobile") was front drive and front steering -- but if Cugnot's valve gear had been opposite phase, his engine would have rotated the other way and it would have been rear drive and rear steering. I recall another very early steam automobile that was a converted boat, driven by the main wheels but steered with a smaller wheel mounted on the rudder (would have been pretty cranky without a differential, though).

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  • $\begingroup$ steering from the back need not result in the rear wheels doing the steering. In fact early cars were driven from the back. $\endgroup$
    – Esther
    Aug 4 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Esther The question specifically refers to moving the rear wheels to steer, however (like most forklift trucks), not to the location of the operating controls. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Aug 5 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ yes, I meant that having to tend the fire in the rear of the machine would not absolutely necessitate having the rear wheels steer $\endgroup$
    – Esther
    Aug 5 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Esther Ever seen (pictures of) the very first steam powered land vehicle? It was a converted boat, including tiller steering via a wheel attached to the rudder (technically, worlds first amphibious vehicle, too). This despite horse-drawn wagons with front axle steering being common for centuries before then. Hence the source of my image... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Aug 5 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon googled about that thing, and found this article britannica.com/biography/Nicolas-Joseph-Cugnot describing Cugnot as the first recorded inventor of a steam-powered land vehicle, yet it had a single front steering wheel. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 5 at 14:17
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A rear-steering car is an example of an inverted pendulum, which as many have mentioned is inherently unstable and infamously difficult to control. Using this design will make cars more dangerous, will require roadways to be significantly wider, and will limit how quickly your vehicle can turn. If you really want this in your world, though, here's a way you can contrive it into being:

Henry Ford didn't return home when he was 19.

At age 16, Ford left home to work as an apprentice machinist for several companies in Detroit. He returned to the family farm three years later, where he worked for almost 10 years on a farm and a sawmill until he became an engineer for the Edison company. It was here that he developed his quadricycle, the precursor to his automobile.

In your world, Ford never returned home. Instead, he continued to work in Detroit, where his last employer was Dry Dock Engine Works, a manufacturer of engines for boats. Ford stayed here longer in your world, where he advanced to become the chief test pilot and analyst for new engine designs. He spent many, many days piloting small craft around the Detroit River, and he particularly enjoyed the tugboat that they used for testing cargo hauling capability. As a result, his automobile designs did not evolve from the horse-drawn buggy. Instead, he took a wildly-successful tugboat design and modified it to operate on land.

The resulting vehicle would be built in a radically different manner. Your cars would look more like this photo of a tugboat pushing a barge:

tugboat pushing a barge

[image source]

The driver would sit in a small cab, most likely alone, with the engine and controls. This cab would link up to a payload of some sort, whether that be a passenger compartment, flatbed for cargo, etc. and would push it along. The payload section's basic frame would be structured somewhat like of a train car: a flat platform with its own fixed wheels, but dependent on external propulsion and steering.

All of the complex, expensive machinery is encapsulated within the cab. Customers could buy a single cab, plus several relatively-inexpensive payload units which would allow them to easily haul cargo, take their family to town, or even do light farm or industrial work without having to buy separate vehicles. A delivery driver could drive a box truck, a liquid tanker, and a refrigerated food van in a single day, all without leaving his cab. Ford was also known for his standardized designs, which allowed customers to upgrade to a newer cab design while still using their existing payload units.

Engineers would undoubtedly notice the inherent stability problems with this arrangement once speeds increased to a certain point. However, Ford's design was ubiquitous and deeply entrenched by that time, and the existing ecosystem of cabs and payload units meant that redesigning the vehicle for higher speeds would require customers to abandon their extensive investments in it. That would make the new designs far too expensive for all but the richest customers, not to mention you'd have to re-train every driver on the road. Drivers were even frightened at the very thought of piloting a vehicle from the front. The payload unit offered good protection in the event of a collision, and moving the cab to the front presented a lot more danger for the driver and for the expensive part of the vehicle. Instead, the existing design stuck, and vehicles in your world have inherent limits to their speed and maneuverability that drivers simply accept as a normal thing.

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    $\begingroup$ Contrary to popular belief, Ford is not the inventor of automobiles, he just made a very successful model. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ All this would do is make Ford fail as a company. German cars would have superior handling characteristics and dominate the market. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ First car was 1885 / 86 (with front steering!). First Ford car was 1903. $\endgroup$
    – pecks
    Aug 5 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ The first mass-produced car was the Oldsmobile Curved Dash in 1901. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @SebastiaanvandenBroek - I never said he invented them. He made them available to the masses, though. He had the popularity, resources, and clout to direct the automobile in whatever direction he wanted. He was leading the industry from the front (unlike his cars in this universe). Just as importantly, other industry icons don't have histories that could be suitably changed by a single event. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Aug 5 at 15:00
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The Inevitable Might of Roman Steam:

Early concepts of Greek steam engines are developed and exploited by Rome to build a world-spanning empire. Steam ships and trains come to totally dominate long distance transportation. Wagons and horses are considered backward, quaint, or weapons of war (and thus rebellion). Even wagons come to be run on rails, which are viewed as modern symbols of power and dominance. Open land is used for crops or filled with trees to fuel the hungry appetite for steam power.

So all roads are narrow and twisty, dominated by pedestrians, horses and the smallest and most maneuverable wagons. No one considers roads to be long distance transport, so no one thinks about going fast on them. You want to avoid the many obstacles.

So when cars come to replace wagons and pedestrians, they compete with a massive, standardized global network of trains and rails. Cars put a premium on maneuverability, and speed is not a significant consideration.

Wild Safety Feature:

The earliest cars had a terrible safety record, but forward-thinking engineers realized that seat belts and rear-facing people prevented deaths. So they decided to make the driver face backwards and drive via a series of mirrors.

The saddle and bridle lobby, eager to quash the horseless carriage, lobbies to make the awkward arrangement mandatory for the dangerous contraptions. This was so successful that governments mandate this seemingly unusual arrangement.

Car engineers add gears in both directions to facilitate driving either way. "reverse" driving is stable at higher speeds, while "forward" driving allows better control and a direct view by the driver at lower speeds.

Computers come before cars:

Mechanical computers in the 1800's lead to an early development of advanced computing power. So by the time cars become popular, they are already self-driving. They start with dynamic control, and rear steering is adopted as the standard.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer is what actually gets us to the desired outcome: There are no highways. Transportation everywhere is one of either fixed rail, or windy narrow cart lanes. Everyone would prefer the maneuverability of fork-lift style navigation when they run about on their own, and use fixed transportation for ALL long distance travel. Thus, an extremely efficient and practical rail system had to evolve, that offers very convenient access and scheduling. Designing this would be another big ask. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Aug 5 at 12:50
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naval cars and cultural inertia

Your cars arise from shipping design not horse carts. Ships are steered from the rear, so if the first mass produced car was created by maritime enthusiast or in a society with a much stronger maritime tradition, that is what they would make because that is the form of steering most people are familiar with. Keep in mind early automobiles were steered by tillers so its not even that far fetched, the tiller linkage can just as easily go to a back wheel as a front wheel. It does not even require that major of a redesign to just swap the direction of travel so you can use early cars as models.

Keep in mind early cars are slow, so high speed performance issues will not have a chance to have an effect, problems later on will not be able to reverse the design.

It doesn't matter if the design is better or worse it just need to dominate the early market. Once it becomes common cultural inertia sets in and rear steering front end drive cars is what gets made from then on regardless. Because that is what people will know how to drive any attempt to try something different never gets a chance. Its the same reason the Qwerty keyboard is the keyboard we still use and why we use a dangerously narrow railroad gauge. It is how countries lock in electrical plug or which side of the road you drive on. A lot of technology has horrible inefficiencies that are just baggage from early designs and changing them is just too much trouble because it requires retraining the users. One fun side effect is rear steering bicycles would likely also become the standard.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ The tiller on early cars turned the front wheels, not the rear ones. There's also a major difference between the dynamics of a vehicle traveling in water or air versus one rolling on the ground. One major one is that tilt to the side while turning is expected: the aircraft still maintains lift on both wings, the boat hull is still supported by the water. Tilting as much in an automobile as is routine in a boat or aircraft while turning would be disastrous as it means the outside wheels have lifted off the ground. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison yes the early tiller turned the front wheels through a linkage, thus attaching the linkage to rear wheels would be just as easy, but I guess that was unclear so I will edit.. tilt while turning applies equally to all cars regardless of whether the rear or front wheels turn. which end you steer from does not change the tilt. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 4 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ the point was that just because something works on water does not mean it will translate equally well to land. As others have pointed out, all cars will tilt, yes, but the problem with rear steering is that the tilt is more likely to be sudden and unexpected because of the geometry. In other words, with front steering if I twitch the wheel slightly to the side, not much will happen and tilt isn't a factor. With rear-wheel steering, the car is more likely to make a sudden unplanned turn, and then it is rolling over. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison what tilt, there is no reason rear steering will cause a car to tilt. If anything a rear steering car is less likely to flips since the front wheels stay aligned with the direction of momentum. And as I said it doesn't matter if its better or worse it just needs to be first to get locked in, it happened to all kinds of technology, we use demonstratablely worse designs just to to cultural inertia. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 4 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Rear-wheel steering at speed makes a vehicle much twitchier, and thus more likely to go into a unplanned sudden turn or skid, which thus increases the danger of a rollover. Now, consider how one controls a skid: if the rear kicks out to the left, you counteract by steering (the front) to the left as well, which counteracts the rotation of the vehicle. If you have rear-steer and the rear end loses grip and skids you have no way of stopping because the wheels needed to do that don't work and you can't counteract the spin. And then you vastly increase the odds of tilt and rollover. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 21:13
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Without changing physics. We change need. Horses never made it out of North America and so went extinct. The carriage was never invented and standard road widths were human push cart widths, not carriage widths. Although other creatures were domesticated none performed as well as horsed would have or adapted to their domesticated role poorly. City's became more compact. When the gas engine came about it needed the maneuverability of the rear wheel steering to navigate the narrow streets built up over centuries. Custom became standard.

where speed became a need in inter urbane/city travel. A method of the driver turning around and driving the car at higher and safer speed was devised.

Naturally the whole design of the car will need to change since the road width limits the cars width to under 5ft wide or less! I would not be surprised if in city driving the driver would sit in the rear behind 2 row seats in front of him and drives from the rear, until he needs intercity speeds where he turns the cockpit around and then is driving from the front. This is all weird and almost Rube Goldbergish, or might not be surprised to see a cat in a hat driving...but it checks the boxes.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's fascinating to see all the suggestions for turning the car around to drive at high speeds. How about just accepting that they're low speed vehicles only? For inter-city travel you simply drive your car to a train-based land ferry. $\endgroup$ yesterday
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As Vesper's answer notes, the laws of physics dictate that front-steering cars will cause a lot fewer accidents, due to stability.

One way to make rear-steering cars safe is to make them trams. This is sort of cheating, because trams are not really cars. But imagine a society where there are tramways on every road: it would be infeasible to have switches at every junction in the track, so the junctions are just open and the tram must be steered onto the branch the driver wants to go down. (There are probably also not as many junctions as a typical road network has.)

In this case the main safety risk is that the front wheels will go down one branch while the back wheels go down another, so it actually makes sense to give more control over the back wheels than the front: that way if the front wheels take the wrong branch by mistake, the driver can more easily apply a force on the back wheels to take that same branch. (Perhaps there is also some mechanical feedback built into the steering system to make this happen automatically.) Taking wrong turns would be more likely, but the front and back wheels going down separate tracks would be much less likely, so it trades inconvenience for safety.

So what single change in history would cause every city to have tram lines on their roads? Perhaps if people had started taking the threats of air pollution and climate change seriously a lot longer ago, society would prefer trams because of their lower emissions. Here's a not-entirely-implausible sequence of events:

  • The 1948 events of Donora, PA instead occur in 1848, bringing the same scientific attention to the health risks of air pollution a hundred years earlier.
  • Because of the greater focus on air quality in the scientific community, Eunice Foote's 1856 discovery that an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide results in a warmer planet receives more attention from her peers.
  • Consequently, through further research, the scientific consensus about these two issues is reached in around the 1870's.
  • Through science communication and education, at least among those with political power, by 1900 there is a general understanding that burning fossil fuels on too large a scale is harmful in the medium term (due to air pollution) and the long term (due to climate change).
  • After Henry Ford invents the Model T in 1908, politicians and the public see that mass-produced fossil-fuel burning cars will not be good for people. This creates a problem for Ford; not wanting his business to be legislated out of existence, he meets with local politicians in various municipalities to negotiate a deal: his cars will burn much less fuel if they be allowed to run on existing tramways. The next Ford model is a dual-mode car and tram, and this design becomes popular for a couple of decades.
  • The growing automobile industry lobbies for more tramways so that they can sell more cars.
  • Eventually, there are so many tramways that it is viable (and cheaper) for a driver to purchase a single-mode tram-car. The regulatory environment for single-mode tram-cars is also more relaxed because they are less likely to accidentally leave the road and hit a pedestrian.

This gets you to a modern society where most people drive "cars" that can only follow tramways in the roads, and those cars can have rear steering as standard.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with trams is, they are not steered at all, so making cars trams makes them lose steering. Whoops. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 5 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Vesper ... it would be infeasible to have switches at every junction in the track, so the junctions are just open and the tram must be steered onto the branch the driver wants to go down. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Aug 5 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ Hum, how can you then theoretically steer a tram to a desired junction if your rear wheels that should do the steering are plain locked in the track? $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 5 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ The wheels are locked in the track but the vehicle can still pivot on them; the vehicle turns rather than the wheels. And the track at a junction needs to be slightly looser to allow the vehicle to switch between the two branches. I suppose initially the tramways (designed for conventional trams) would not be suitable for this, but a dual-mode tram-car (with front steering) would be able to disengage from the track in order to make a turn anyway, and later tramways would be designed to allow the vehicle to steer itself. Rear steering becomes standard only on single-mode tram-cars. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Aug 5 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm an interesting decision. Yet, trying to turn the whole vehicle by locked wheels would cause another issue: front wheels' reaction with ground would have to be overcome, but with the pivot point above the rear wheels (with railroad, they will likely be assembled into a single block as with modern carriages, or left as one wheel to reduce wear) it will have a pretty long lever, thus the force with which to turn such a tram would have to exceed friction several times, when applied to the steering wheel. Imagine a 2-ton car turned like that: you'll have to steer with about 16 force-tons! $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 5 at 12:59
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Just to add to assorted comments why rear-wheel steering outside of certain specialized vehicles isn't a thing, here's an example of why: the 1933 Buckminister Fuller designed Dymaxion Car.

Leaving aside the issue of the bad aerodynamics making it dangerous to drive, here's a video of someone driving one. While one of the problems noted would have been dealt with with two rear steering wheels and not the one, the control issue would not have gone away because of the steering. Basically, at over 40 mph the thing is a danger.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1yxFDvqALI

And here's a useful experiment I saw someone describe to explain the issue with rear-wheel steering: the next time you're at a grocery store or some other place with a shopping cart that has two fixed wheel and two on casters for steering, try pushing it around the store backward for a while and you'll begin to see some of the issues.

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    $\begingroup$ the real lesson of the dymaxion was don't build a car so light that generates so much lift that wind can have a stronger force on the car than ground forces. A lot of the steering issues comes down to priming, contemporary drivers have muscle memory for driving front wheel steering, its the same reason driving a backwards bicycle is difficult, not because it's inherently difficult but because you have the wrong muscle memory. youtube.com/watch?v=MFzDaBzBlL0 $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 4 at 21:36
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Cargo cult

enter image description here

Your civilization didn't invent cars, they learned about them from another advanced civilization that left some car kits on your planet/continent. But the instructions were confusing and written in a language your people don't speak, so they did the best they could. Maybe it didn't come out looking like the diagram, and there were some extra screws, and steering is kind of a pain, but it was better than riding donkeys. Eventually people figured out that front steering works better, but by that point cultural inertia, blah blah...


Religion

The society is extremely religious and there is sacred symbolic importance to the steering orientation, that is more important than safety/convenience/money. Perhaps this would evolve from a naval culture where helmsmen were toward the back of the ship, or a military where generals were in the rear. The Christian Church once condemned left-handedness, perhaps this culture would equally condemn front-wheel drive or front-wheel steering.


Digitigrade legs

enter image description here

Okay, this is a big change, but...

In terrestrial vertebrates, digitigrade locomotion is walking or running on the toes (from the Latin digitus, 'finger', and gradior, 'walk'). A digitigrade animal is one that stands or walks with its toes (metatarsals) touching the ground, and the rest of its foot lifted. Digitigrades include walking birds (what many assume to be bird knees are actually ankles), cats, dogs, and many other mammals, but not plantigrades or unguligrades. Digitigrades generally move more quickly and quietly than other animals.

Digitigrade legs (as found in birds, dogs, and many others) are much more nimble, usually resulting in faster and quieter animals than platigrades like us. Perhaps to a digitigrade hominid, super-sensitive rear-wheel steering would feel natural.

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    $\begingroup$ While a fun answer, the civilization would have quickly realized that their cars were a lot easier to drive in the reverse gear. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ Since you brought up IKEA, there is one relevant thing I've noticed when shopping at IKEA's - the shopping carts there, unlike those found at most supermarkets or other stores I've seen, have all 4 wheels capable of swiveling, rather than just the front 2. This allows them to roll sideways, rotate in place, and do various other maneuvers that are impossible with a standard shopping cart, but it does take some getting used to. (These of course are not powered vehicles, just carts you push around, so it's not quite the same thing...) $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean Haven't you heard about the arguments between tricycle and tail dragger landing gear in airplanes? It's about the same thing. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 4 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean where I live, all grocery store shopping carts have "all-wheel steering". Nobody runs into anyone, and they're not hard to steer at all, unless you happen to get one in which one wheel is slightly stuck. In fact, it makes things much easier, because you can move out of the way by just moving the entire cart sideways, instead of having to do some complicated non-holonomic maneuvers. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JordiVermeulen I wonder if that's just a northern-European/Scandinavian thing? IKEA is a Swedish company of course, and your profile says Netherlands - maybe that's just more common in that region? In the US (and I've lived in various parts of it), the only 4-wheel steering carts I ever see are at IKEA. $\endgroup$ 2 days ago
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Two things together:

  • Rear engine cars became the rule rather than the exception. Perhaps due a series of accidents where the engine was pushed into the passenger compartment, seriously injuring or killing the driver and passengers.
  • Steering was tightly coupled to the drive wheels, which in turn where located with the engine.

In other words, no rear-wheel drive cars with front engines or front-wheel drive cars with rear engines + cars mandated to have rear engines for safety + steering on drive wheels = rear steering.

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    $\begingroup$ Why should steering be coupled to drivetrain? Also if there are incidents about engines being thrown into passenger compartment, why not place passengers higher? Let the drivetrain with whatever extra mechanisms be located on the same level as engine, yet everyone else would be supported by a sturdy frame several feet above all that mess. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 5 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ Why would it be coupled? I don't know, but that's a key point that might just have to be handwaved in. But putting people above the engines just isn't terribly practical - who wants to climb several feet up, loading cargo becomes harder, overpasses/bridges/power lines have to be higher because the typical vehicle is taller, vehicles become more top-heavy, etc. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ Front-wheel drive took a long time to become common because coupling your steering to your drivetrain is hard. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    2 days ago
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No Power on the Wheels

Your Society didn't figure out how to get Power to the Wheels. Instead they use Rocket Boosters to accelerate and for the first fifty years the rocket cars were only used on straight ways so there were no big deal to steer with the tires.

During the invention time the world wasn't that populated and the major cities are fare away from another. So the rocket-cars started as public transportation like trains in our world, but faster and without rails. When the surface of your planet got more populated the cars needed a possibility to steer around some objects. Steering was made by pushing a break into the ground; and that's easier to control if you break in your rear part.

When they had to make slower vehicles to support more nearby cities, they stayed with sliding and rear steering as long as they could. That's where technology is today.

The main technology comes from an very icy region (like Antarctica) where they don't need wheels. So the whole invention took another way.

I guess in future they will discover things like front steering.

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Weak (or governed because of emissions concerns or safety rules) coupled with something like narrow 90 deg car parks (perhaps due to car population explosion meant driving forwards with visibility and rear steering useful, but no reason to change to front.

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Unlike our Earth, people decided to take action about road deaths. All vehicles were limited 50km/hr and road deaths dropped by 95%.

Driving was really boring as a consequence but then people tried rear wheel steer. Rear wheel steer allowed rapid turns to be performed. It became an art form in 1950s USA and girls would only make out with guys with rear wheel drive.

As the century wore on crazy race tracks became common with really sharp angles to ensure only the gifted could win. Given that girls would only make out with rear wheel drivers front wheel drivers dwindled rapidly in numbers as the reproductive options were extremely limited.

By 1980, only rear wheel drive cars were being produced for road travel, while some agricultural and building vehicles still were produced the consumer market was solely rear wheel drive.

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As others pointed out cars with the steering wheels on the rear are unstable, but that could be part of the fun. In the Stout Scarab the suspension were attached to the car body above the centre of mass and this gave the car an unusual behaviour, in the turns it leaned towards the inner side of the curve like motorcyclists do. With some extra struts and reactive joints the wheels might, also, lean a little bit. That would make a car a little bit more stable, but still prone to skidding. After all when you have the steering wheels on the rear it turns like a boat and getting the momentum for a skid is easy.

Such a car would be fun to drive, but it would not be for everyone, so you can imagine a world where most of the people use public transport, only few expert drivers use the private car.

How did we get there? A period of freak weather left the roads muddy or icy, but always slippery. Trams and train became so successful that they took over the bulk of the transport system. The roads were left to few drivers that took the habit of skidding at every turn like in a speedway race. When the weather stabilised the habit remained and drivers wanted cars prone to skidding.

The alternative story

I also thought about a world with small and crammed roads. All turns must be done in narrow spaces with little visibility, but in such context probably 4 steering wheels would be the best solution.

Unless most of the cars are cheap pick up trucks with the cargo on the front because thefts are frequent and the driver must keep a constant watch on it. With little visibility to make tight turns and the rear wheels closer to the driver position, the rear steering wheels became the easiest and cheapest solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Where does "driving wheels on the rear are unstable" come from, please? If you mean "steering wheels" that's one thing but most cars have always had their "driving" wheels at the rear, with no problems. $\endgroup$ 15 hours ago
  • $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin You are right, I meant steering. Corrected. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    3 hours ago

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