Amongst the hubbub surrounding Tesla’s updated Model S sedan and Model X SUV sharing a new interior layout with a horizontally oriented touchscreen and offering ultra-quick new three-motor Plaid variants, one change stood out. Literally, it pokes out of the new dashboard in the Model S and Model X. It’s the wacky airplane-yoke-style not-round steering wheel Tesla says both electric vehicles will come with. But will the automaker really ship such an unusual steering interface to customers?
We found some images of the new Model S with a regular steering wheel buried within the source code of Tesla’s website, which suggests to us that even the automaker is hedging that the new wheel shape may go unloved by customers or, more critically, be banished by regulators.
Wait, Can Tesla Even Sell Cars With a Steering “Yoke?”
The law isn’t totally clear on whether or not the new Teslas’ steering yokes are fair game, although, in recently proposed rule changes to primary vehicle controls amidst the rise of self-driving cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted it has never fully defined the necessary shape of a steering wheel—i.e., that it must be a complete circle or at least mostly round. It’s only written that the control must satisfy crash standards. In fact, in seeking to clarify definitions of driver controls (and explicitly cover such interfaces in self-driving vehicles that may not need them at all), the NHTSA states—while specifying its wording on the topic—that:
“At every occurrence of the term ‘steering wheel,’ we have substituted the term ‘steering control.’ These terms are synonymous as can be seen by the definition of ‘steering control system.’ Nonetheless, the agency believes there is some merit in changing ‘wheel’ to ‘control’ in consideration of steering controls that may not be circular, e.g., shaped more like an [airplane] yoke control. We note that such systems would have both a ‘hub’ about which they turn and a rim, i.e., an outer edge. “
So, the NHTSA seems okay with the idea of a car—even a regular, manually controlled car that’s not a self-driving vehicle—having a yoke so long as it satisfies impact safety regulations and has an airbag. Again, given the lack of existing clarity on the subject in the NHTSA’s existing rulebook, and the fact that the statement above is referenced in a proposed rule change, it suggests that Tesla is in a gray zone with its futuristic new steering setup. There isn’t anything on the books that all but states, “no, Tesla can’t do this,” but neither is there a clear-cut affirmation, either. We reached out to the NHTSA for clarity, and received this response:
“At this time, NHTSA cannot determine if the steering wheel meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. We will be reaching out to the automaker for more information.”
Tesla’s Clearly Thinking About a Normal Steering Wheel
This brings us to those images of the new Model S equipped with a run-of-the-mill steering wheel. Sure, these are renderings, just like the other imagery on Tesla’s online configurator for building out its models, but Tesla clearly thought through the notion that for all the hoopla around the “yoke,” it might end up needing to offer a more conventional backup. Or, perhaps, the company is just trolling everyone and has no plans to offer the yoke in the first place. Tesla’s chief executive officer, Elon Musk, is a prolific tweeter and known jokester (whether you like his jokes or not is an entirely separate discussion). After all, this is the same man behind the Tesla lineup (Model S, Model 3, Model X, and Model Y) spelling out the word “S-3-X-Y.”
Looking at the steering wheel photos, which have since disappeared from Tesla’s site code, we can see right away that the wheel itself is a new design relative to that of the outgoing Model S. It also is attached to a column lacking the prior car’s transmission control and signal stalks. At least the signal stalk’s functions move to the steering yoke, while the transmission stalk disappears entirely. The same control layout appears the same on the secret versions with the steering wheel. A stalk-free column isn’t unheard of—Ferrari has offered wiper, signal, and other key controls on its steering wheels for years now. However, a recent tweet by Elon Musk suggests the transmission controls may live on the touchscreen, and that there may even be software that “intuits” what direction (forward, reverse, park) the driver wants.
For now, we’ve reached out to Tesla for comment on the secret traditional steering wheel imagery we uncovered on its website, and what it means for the production 2022 Model S and Model X. Will those models offer a regular wheel as an option? Will Tesla be forced to use one? Or will fans get to geek out over the EVs’ wild control yokes, earning one more bragging point alongside Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system? Stay tuned.
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