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Does the steering wheel need to be round? Tesla’s Elon Musk introduces new yoke-shaped wheel

Does the steering wheel need to be round? Tesla's Elon Musk introduces new yoke-shaped wheel


Does the steering wheel need to be round? Tesla’s Elon Musk introduces new yoke-shaped wheel

Electric pickups: Tesla, GM, Ford, Rivian to release EV trucksTesla, General Motors, Ford and Rivian are among the automakers betting a truckload on their electric pickups.staff video, USA TODAYElon Musk is trying to reinvent the (steering) wheel. But does it need to be reinvented? And is it safe to do so?The new steering wheel on the Tesla Model S ultra-luxury electric sedan is not a wheel at all but a yoke-shaped grip.The wheel, which looks like it belongs in an arcade, resembles a normal steering wheel without the top third, where there’s nothing to hold onto.Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the flat-bottomed rectangular shape looks cooler than the conventional wheel and makes it easier for drivers to see the instrument panel.It marks the latest evolution in his vision to move against the grain in the auto industry, having already upended expectations for electric vehicles, vehicle infotainment and design.“I love the yoke!” he said on Twitter in June. Months later, he said that a round steering wheel “is boring & blocks the screen.”But consumer watchdogs are concerned that it makes for a worse and potentially more dangerous driving experience.In a week of testing, 10 experts at Consumer Reports “chronicled every time it slipped out of their hands during a turn, every ache and pain from gripping the handles during a highway cruise, every time a tester’s hands didn’t fit on the yoke’s grips, every time we accidentally honked the horn while trying to make a turn, and every time we had to look down to see which turn signal was which.”The new design is “a jarring departure from the norm,” Consumer Reports concluded. Tesla’s not the only one to play around with a non-round steering wheel. Automakers have often flirted with cockpit-style steering wheels in concept vehicles.The most recent example is the Toyota bZ4X electric SUV concept vehicle. Toyota showed off a yoke-style steering wheel in photos of the bZ4X concept.But when it announced on Oct. 29 that the vehicle would arrive at U.S. dealerships in mid-2022, spokesman Scott Vazin said the company is sticking with a round wheel for American buyers. In the Chinese market, however, the yoke shape will be offered.Yoke steering wheel design looks ‘futuristic’What designers find enticing is the high-tech look.Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, acknowledged that the Tesla yoke looks “futuristic” and enables easier viewing of the gauge cluster.“But those minor advantages are far outweighed by the disadvantages of just basically manipulating the steering of the car,” Fisher said. “It can make it quite difficult in certain situations.”For example, when you’re engaging in a hand-over-hand turn, there’s nothing to grab at the top half of the wheel.“You definitely have to really think and honestly look down at the steering wheel to see where you’re grabbing it, which is not what you want to be doing,” Fisher said. “You want to actually look at the road.”Yet another round wheel is boring & blocks the screen. FSD in panoramic mode looks way better with a yoke.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 9, 2021Tesla, which has eliminated its public relations department, did not respond to a request seeking comment for this story. But Musk said in June that he’s gotten used to the new design.“I’ve been driving with the yoke for a while & it’s great,” he said on Twitter.Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, criticized Tesla for not preparing its drivers for the change.”Whether there’s an actual need to redesign the steering wheel that all drivers use when learning how to drive is an interesting question,” he said in an email. “But if history is any guide, chances are Tesla simply expects its customers, and those who share the road with them, to discover the answer and suffer any consequences in real time.”Fisher said he expected to run into trouble with turning the new Tesla wheel. What he didn’t expect was confusion about the turn signal and the horn. Both use capacitive controls on the wheel, meaning they sense the driver’s fingers instead of requiring a physical push.“Because of their placement when the steering is turned, it is not obvious at all where to press to either activate the turn signal or the horn,” Fisher said. “Because they’re on the steering spokes, when you twist the steering wheel, they’re in different locations.”It’s especially difficult to use the turn signal when the wheel is inverted, he said.It’s “upside down” in that situation, he said. “The arrows are pointing in the wrong direction. It’s almost like a cognitive IQ test or to figure out which turn signal to activate.”Engineers know how to solve that problem. It’s called “drive-by-wire” steering, which enables the motorist to change directions without turning the wheel end over end. This is what Toyota plans to use for the bZ4X in China.Musk has signaled that Tesla will introduce a similar capability.“Progressive steering would require complex gearing or drive-by-wire without direct mechanical link,” he said. “Will aim for that in a few years.”Musk’s bid to revolutionize transportation is admirable, but he mustn’t move too fast, Fisher said.”Yes, Tesla’s goal may be to eliminate the need for a steering wheel, but we simply aren’t there yet,” Fisher said. “Imagine how frustrated Apple customers would be if they eliminated the iPhone’s headphone jack before they made Bluetooth headphones work.”To be sure, there are examples on the track of vehicles with alternatively shaped steering wheels.”Certain race cars have yokes,” Fisher said. “But those cars don’t require hand-over-hand steering. A yoke can work fine as long as you don’t need to remove your hands to steer the vehicle.”William Van Tassel, manager of driver training for AAA, who creates curricula for driving tests and recommends best practices, declined to comment on the safety of the Tesla wheel.But he said a yoke-style wheel might force drivers to keep both hands on the wheel.For now, he’s already contemplating whether AAA will need to revise its driving advice or tests to accommodate for the possibility of differently shaped steering wheels.“We’re already giving some thought to that,” he said. “Ideally, they’ll give us a test car for a year, and we’ll play with it and come up with some real-world advice for drivers of all ages.”It wouldn’t be the first time that changes in the steering wheel altered how experts advise that people drive.Steering-wheel-mounted airbags and the advent of power steering undercut the old advice of keeping your hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the wheel.Today, AAA teaches that the best place for your hands is 9 and 3 or even 8 and 4.“If we could get one point across about steering,” Van Tassel said, “it’s have both hands on the wheel.”You can follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.

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