Everyone knows that automotive steering wheels are round, right? That is why they call them steering “wheels”. But Tesla is in the business of reinventing how cars are being built and designed, and the latest Model S now has a steering Yoke, which is not a wheel. And it looks more like an airplane yoke, or a Formula 1 race car steering wheel/yoke. This means that it looks somewhat like a traditional steering wheel, but with a flattened bottom, and the top of the wheel cut off.
Outside of racing cars and airplanes, several new concept cars have shown off a similar yoke steering wheel design. In fact, both the new Tesla Roadster and the Cybertruck concepts featured a similar steering yoke, and even Mercedes new Vision EQS concept car has a yoke steering “wheel”.
The questions are: Is this real? Will it truly be on the production 2021 Model S and X? Will government safety agencies approve the design for road use? Will Tesla offer a traditional steering wheel as another option for buyers? And simply, Why Change?
Since this new Tesla steering yoke is clearly shown on their website for both the new, production, Model S and Model X, I think that it has to be real. Tesla has said that the production of the 2021 Model S and Model X vehicles has already begun, even though the new Model S is slated to ship in March, and the new Model X is due by this April.
As to national safety approval, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said: “At this time, NHTSA cannot determine if the steering wheel meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” the federal agency replied. “We will be reaching out to the automaker for more information.”
Referring to alternative 2021 Tesla steering wheel designs, someone digging around in the Tesla configurator website code came up with a Tesla image clearly showing the new Model S interior, but with a full steering wheel. This shows that Tesla probably has a fallback plan with a traditional steering wheel as an option, or perhaps as an emergency backup. In case government regulators push back on their new designs.
Other than looking cool and modern, you have to wonder why Tesla decided to change the steering wheel, which is one of the most recognizable parts of every car and truck built over the last 100 years. Even in just learning how to drive, we were taught that the best way to drive a car was to hold your hands at the Ten O’clock, and Two O’clock positions on the top of the steering wheel, for maximum control. And also to practice the “hand over hand” movement to rotate the steering wheel quickly and efficiently when turning. Both moves are impossible with Tesla’s new steering yoke.
Now it could be that Tesla’s new Yoke design has some sort of progressive steering assist design so that when you are driving slowly it takes less steering input to turn the vehicle's wheels further, and the steering assist is reduced as speeds rise so that when you sneeze on the freeway you don’t accidentally fling yourself off the road.
And the Yoke itself is not the only change that has people talking. In addition, Elon Musk said that the Yoke will not have traditional stalks behind the wheel. You can see in the steering wheel images that the directional indicators (turn signals) are now buttons on the left side of the yoke. This will also take some getting used to, as we are all programmed to move the turn signal stalk up or down to indicate our desire to change lanes or make a turn.
But that is not all that Tesla changed. Apparently, the directional control (gear selector) is automatically controlled by the onboard computer, which looks around the outside of your Tesla and “guesses” which way to drive. (I am not kidding here). Elon did add the comment that direction selector buttons (Forward/Neutral/Drive/Park) would also be available on the main screen, just in case the computer automatically chooses incorrectly. Realistically, I’d say that this auto-select drive feature could either be very intuitive and simple or potentially catastrophic, depending on how well it predicts what you want correctly. Most likely, this feature will be disabled by default, and you can just use the screen controls.
Why Reinvent the Wheel?
Under the category of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” you have to wonder what was so wrong with the steering wheel, stalks, and gear selector that they needed to be reinvented? And one answer is: Nothing. Saying that this is just a marketing move to get the internet stirred up over a Big, New, Disrupting feature/innovation that Tesla tosses out into the automotive world, may just be true. Tesla has “pioneered” several new features before, answering questions and fixing problems that most people had never considered to be a problem before. Examples here are Tesla’s BioHazard air filters, Falcon-Wing doors on the Model X, and Bullet-Proof glass on the CyberTruck. Were they necessary? Nope. Did they strike up controversy and discussion centering around Tesla? Yes!
This could also be a sign that Tesla simply has great confidence in their upcoming Full Self Driving system, and that this is just a middle step before Tesla removes the steering wheel and driving pedals entirely from their new cars.
As much as I sound very skeptical about these designs, if I had the choice to order my new Model S Plaid+ (wishing here) with, or without the new changes, I’d probably keep the car’s design as presented, and adapt to the new bits.
What do you think about these new Tesla design changes? Is this a breakthrough, or bad idea?
Dean McManis is an electric car specialist and can be reached on Facebook at DeanMcManis for tips and feedback. Please, also leave your comments below for discussion.