- tesla redesigned its model s with a yoke-style steering wheel, and we're not the only ones wondering: is it safe for the average driver?
- we reached out to the national highway traffic safety administration (nhtsa) and learned that they don't "approve" design changes like this—it's up to the automaker to make sure its products meet safety standards before they release them.
- the steering yoke has both fans and detractors but elon musk says it is here to stay.
it just wouldn't be a conversation about tesla without some sort of controversy about the screen or the styling or the promises of performance. everyone's favorite new tesla topic is the steering wheel, or rather, the steering yoke, in the model s. the redesigned model s comes with a rectangular "wheel" with no top bar. it looks like an upside-down formula 1 wheel, or, as many people have pointed out, like the controls in knight rider's k.i.t.t. neat. the scuttlebutt about the yoke is not whether it looks cool, but if it will be comfortable, or even safe, on the road.
many fans and detractors have assumed that tesla will eventually offer the model s with a traditional wheel, but musk recently put the kibosh on that with a terse tweet to an online query. "no," he said in a thread discussing possible alternate steering styles.
when it was first announced in january 2021, there were even questions about whether it was legal, with quotes from the national highway traffic safety administration (nhtsa) appearing in multiple articles saying it was "reaching out" to tesla for more information. whatever that conversation was, it must have satisfied the nhtsa investigators, because when car and driver approached them for an update about the safety of the yoke, the rep responded with a sigh that was audible through email—ours must not have been the first query on the subject.
"nhtsa does not 'approve' or test vehicles prior to their introduction," she told us. "manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their vehicles meet all nhtsa safety standards and must certify the compliance of their vehicles. nhtsa's standards do not prohibit non-circular steering controls, but manufacturers must ensure the steering control meets all requirements for occupant impact protection." so, basically, if the steering control won't impale the occupants or leave the vehicle and impale pedestrians, nhtsa doesn't care what shape it is. good news for tesla, bad news if you were hoping to sell a spiked dog-collar version.
just because something is legal, though, doesn't mean it's a good idea in a car. or maybe, more accurately, just because something is a good idea in an airplane or race car doesn't mean it's a good idea in a street car. yoke-style steering controls are not new; they've been on dragsters since the beginning of nitro racing, in airplanes, and in the earlier mentioned f1 cars, but one rarely has to parallel park an open-wheel ferrari, and if you're doing a three-point turn in a top fuel rail you've got more problems than just an uncomfortable steering ratio.
from watching videos of people driving the model s, it looks like parking is the most complicated change for people used to a round steering wheel. some of this has to do with tesla's decision not to adjust the steering ratio to go along with the new yoke—it would be better with a quicker ratio where the yoke wouldn't have to be turned as far—and we have to imagine this will be addressed in the future. tesla seems to have no problem with developing products on the go. some videos make the yoke look impossible, but anyone who has ever gotten out of a manual and into an automatic and had to spend a day pressing on an invisible clutch before the muscle memory faded should have some idea of how quickly we can learn a new automotive layout. we did notice that racer randy pobst didn't seem to want to risk that learning curve on the curves of the pikes peak international hill climb. pobst can be seen hustling a model s plaid up the mountain to a class win and 10thoverall finish with a traditional round wheel in the car.
for people not doing their test drives cliffside, there are plenty of positive yoke reviews on youtube too, much of it seems to be about how much the driver wants to like the yoke.
"i'm a big believer in tesla and what they're doing, but i'd call it out if it wasn't good," said youtuber and electric-car enthusiast teslaraj when we asked him about his yoke test drive. "i can't say the yoke will drastically improve the driving experience or safety, but i can say you get used to it quickly and it doesn't feel unsafe. if i had any complaint about the yoke it would be that the turn signals are hard to use, not the steering." raj went on to say that he did notice, and enjoy, the clear field of vision allowed by the truncated wheel, and that he thinks any minor learning curve is worth it for the style it brings to the cabin. "if i'm paying x amount for an electric car, it should feel like i'm in the future, and this feels like the future."
another review, the one that prompted musk's recent tweet, seemed to agree with raj that it wasn't the steering that was hard to use but the touch-sensitive controls—and this is hardly a tesla-only problem. mercedes, we're looking at your tiny steering-wheel buttons.
it's fun to throw a fit every time an automaker tries something new, but crows and octopi can use tools, so we, most adaptable of monkeys, are going to be able to figure out how to drive using the new tesla model s yoke even if it isn’t the most sensible solution to steering. is the lamborghini huracán paddle-shift-into-gear sensible? is the porsche left-hand key? is anything about the ram trx? if sensible was the only rule to automotive design, everything would look like the inside of a little tikes cozy coupe. the yokes are coming, and if they start crashing at an unreasonable rate, we’ll check back with our friends at nhtsa.