In 2021, Tesla introduced a new steering wheel for the Model S and X. While similar to one introduced on the new Roadster prototype in 2018, it’s gotten a lot of positive and negative attention. We can bust some of the myths, look at safety, and talk about how it works. (Oct-2023).
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 seamed to wait for some regulatory approval in March 2021, but has since released the new design.
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 significant harm if the bag pushes a hand into your face. The Tesla yoke steering wheel eliminates this risk.
Many reports from actual users now show it’s a good design and takes very little time to get used to.
- Easier for the driver to get into and out of the car
- Hand positions are comfortable and safer
- Improved visibility to the instrument cluster
- No interference with air vents directed at your face
- Less complex than many new steering wheels with 20+ cryptic buttons
- Scroll wheels are easier to select values than +/- buttons
- Different than what owners are used to
- Sharp low-speed turns are handled a little differently if a full rotation is needed
- Can be odd if switching regularly between different cars
- Can be tricky to signal an exit on a complex roundabout
- The first design can have wear issues on the covering (covered under warranty)
After using the yoke steering for many months, I wouldn’t want to go back to an ordinary round steering wheel. It feels more comfortable and precise. At very slow speeds with tight turns, it does require different handling than a round wheel, but it is easy to adjust. I also like the new turn signal controls. They turn off automatically after a lane change or freeway exit.
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 has been using speed-sensitive variable-ratio steering for years, as it is also used by many other manufacturers. Tesla continues to include this feature with the new design.
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. There is also a secondary override available below the wireless phone chargers for Drive, Park, Neutral and Reverse. Tap both scroll wheels at the same time to activate the secondary drive controls. These drive controls also automatically become active if the display or infotainment computer is not functioning.
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 touch buttons on the left side that you use your thumb to control. For the blinker, a light touch turns on the blinker until released. A full press activates the blinkers until a turn is complete, or you tap the control again.
The wiper control is now on a button on the right side. A light touch performs a single swipe. Fully press the button to spray washer fluid. Whenever the wiper button is activated, the display also shows the current setting and you can use the left scroll wheel to change the setting from Off, Auto, or 4 various fixed settings.
The default operation of the right scroll wheel is for Autopilot. There is an indicator between the horn and wiper button that is illuminated when the scroll wheel is in the default Autopilot mode. There are options from the control panel as to how Autopilot and/or cruse control is activated. With single or double press, the right scroll wheel activates Autopilot and another press deactivates it. Speed is adjusted up or down by rotating the scroll wheel up and down. See the manual for complete details and options.
Steering Wheel Position Stalk
To change the depth and height of the steering wheel – go to Controls, and select the steering icon. The left scroll wheel controls the steering wheel position. Shift the scroll wheel to the left or right for the position in or out. Use the scroll wheel up/down to set the position of the steering wheel up or down.
New Car Selection
When ordering a new Model S or Model Y, you can select if you prefer the old-style round steering wheel or the new yoke style. While initially the Yoke was free, it is now a $1000 option (as of October 2023). A new design is expected to roll out in November-2023, and the price may drop when available.