At the start of 2021, Tesla introduced a new steering wheel for the Model S and X. While similar to one introduced on the new Roadster in 2018, it’s gotten a lot of positive and negative attention. While we’ve yet to drive a car with the new wheel, we can bust some of the myths and talk about what is known today. (Mar-2021).
Car makers today often buy parts like the steering wheel from an outside supplier, and with badging and minor tweaks, they are all similar. It requires an airbags, a horn button, and various stalks. Newer designs offer some additional buttons and controls on the steering wheel.
It must also meet safety standards for collapsing in a crash. It is easy to just pick the same old design year after year, perhaps with a different shade of wrapping. The shape of the steering wheel has not changed much in 50+ years on cars. It has been a good design, but automakers have been unwilling to look at what could be improved.
Tesla’s new steering wheel offers several benefits but is quite radical to most at first glance. It reminds one of the yokes used in most airplanes for the last 70 years or those used in the fastest race cars.
Is it legal?
In the UK and EU, others have reported there is no issue. For the USA, NHTSA so far has refused to comment on the compliance of the new steering wheel. As far as I can find, there is no requirement for the shape of a steering wheel. It could even be triangular, but that would be uncomfortable! Tesla does appear to be waiting for some regulatory approval. Early cars will get a round wheel, and have the option to have it switched out when Tesla gets the regulatory approval.
Now some have pointed out Pennsylvania has an inspection requirement:
The steering wheel, except if specially designed for handicapped drivers, is not circular or equivalent in strength to original equipment or has an outside diameter less than 13 inches.
There is no PA law anyone can find that states it must be circular, and my reading of this inspection requirement is referring to steering wheel replacements. The Tesla steering wheel meets the OEM’s original strength, seeing how it has not been replaced.
One major reason for this design is to eliminate the dangerous hand positions on circular steering wheels above the centerline. If during a crash, your hands are on the upper part of a conventional steering wheel, the airbag will likely break both of your wrists. It may also cause further harm if the bag pushes a hand into your face.
This is hard to access without driving a car with the new design, but here are some of the likely factors:
- Easier for the driver to get into and out of the car
- Hand positions look comfortable
- Improved visibility to the instrument cluster
- No interference with air vents directed at your face
- Different than what owners are used to
- Sharp low-speed turns may be harder if a full rotation is needed
At 65 mph, little input is needed with current Tesla vehicles. I measure about 5 degrees of turn needed for changing lanes, and about 15 degrees for a sharp turn at speed. Going around a cloverleaf at 30 mph required about 180 degrees. As you go slower, you can make sharper turns. The maximum steering wheel turning from the center to lock is about 400 degrees, a little more than one full rotation.
Tesla currently uses speed-sensitive variable-ratio steering, used by many manufacturers for many years. We expect the new system will include this feature. It is possible that the ratio is changed so that less angle of turn is needed for the sharpest low-speed turns.
The removal of all stalks is another controversial change Tesla has made. Ok, let’s look at each stalk and the Tesla alternative.
Gear Selector Stalk
The prior stalk offers Park, Drive, Neutral, or Reverse selections. The new design implements an AI solution. When you press on the brake, the car automatically sets the selection. In addition, there is a manual override on the left of the main display. You swipe up to go into drive and swipe down to go into reverse.
Turn Signal Stalk
On prior vehicles, there are two modes for each direction. There is a 3-flash mode that stops automatically and continuous blinker mode. The continuous mode stops after the steering wheel is turned or you manually stop the blinker. The turn signal stalk also controls the high beam and wipers.
With the new steering wheel, the blinker and high-beam controls are soft buttons on the left side that you use your thumb to control. Our early guess is the multiple blinker modes are controlled with a short or long-press as done on higher-end motorcycles.
The wiper control is now on a button on the right side. Perhaps a short press turns it on/off, and a long press is used for the washer. Controls likely appear on the display when the wiper is active to make further adjustments.
We believe this is controlled with the button on the right side, between the horn and wiper button.
Steering Wheel Position Stalk
This is used to set the depth and height of the steering wheel. Our guess is this is activated from the display, and the left scroll wheel is used to control the depth and height.