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When you turn a car’s steering wheel, the car follows a path along the same curve regardless
whether you go forwards or backwards.
So it seems like it should be just as easy to steer going backwards as going forwards.
But clearly, it's not.
Suprisingly, the difficulty of driving backwards has almost nothing to do with the direction
you’re facing and everything to do with the fact that you steer using the front wheels.
When driving forwards, a car goes in the direction the front wheels are pointed.
And when driving backwards, the car goes where the back wheels are pointed.
But the difference is that going forwards, the direction of travel is determined by the
same wheels you steer with, so you just point them where you want to go, and that’s where
you go, the back wheels follow automatically.
In physics, we call this a “stable” system, like dangling a pencil from your fingers – move
your hand around and the pencil follows, no thought required.
However, when driving backwards, the direction of travel is determined by the back wheels
but you steer with the front wheels.
So rather than just pointing the front wheels where you want to go, you have to point them
in the direction that will get the BACK wheels to point in the direction you want to go – it’s
an additional level of separation before the car does what you want.
And in fact, if you don’t make any corrections, then over time the back wheels point farther
and farther away from the direction you want to go: instead of following the front wheels,
they want to run away!
This is an unstable system, like trying to balance a pencil on your fingertip.
It’s incredibly finicky and requires a ton of coordinated hand-eye feedback to maintain.
That’s why you constantly have to readjust your steering when driving backwards – mathematically,
your car is like an upside-down pencil!
Of course, there are some successful rear-steering wheeled vehicles – forklifts, for example,
drive only slowly and choose rear-steering for greater control of their forks.
But let’s go in the other direction and add a TRAILER to your car – steering backwards
has gained ANOTHER level of difficulty: you use your front wheels to get the back wheels
to point in the direction needed to get the TRAILER to point in the direction you want
to go.
Not complicated enough?
It becomes worse the more trailers you add – each one adds another level of separation
between the direction of your steering and the actual direction of travel.
Which is why it’s nearly impossible to push on one end of a chain or a rope and have the
other end go where you want it to, and why you will never, ever balance a flexible rope
or chain upright on your finger.
Makes backwards driving seem downright easy!