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The Tesla ‘yoke’ steering control. Are we going to see it in the production vehicle?

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

Just two days ago, the new Tesla Model S Plaid was released to the public and I couldn’t avoid noticing a few upgrades, both technical and aesthetic, that make this new model pretty appealing.

The new Tesla Model S Plaid cockpit.

I am dumbfounded about the creativity and technical innovations that designers and engineers have to innovate cutting-edge products that we use every day.

In particular, I would like to talk about the new Tesla ‘yoke’ steering wheel.

Is that an example of sustaining innovation, incremental innovation or a marketing strategy?

Sustaining innovations are generally focused on a feature improvement or cutting costs in the production line. A disruptive innovation instead creates a substantial transformation with a groundbreaking new product or service. Clayton M. Christensen was the first who talked about them in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and highlights how disruptors go beyond the upgrades of sustaining innovations and instead create new markets for new customers with disruptive innovations.

When I looked at the new Tesla Model S Plaid cockpit, I noticed something that brought me back to the 80’s and 90’s when I was a kid and I used to watch the popular TV series Knight Rider with David Hasselhoff. I was shocked by admiring Michael Knight driving a high tech, autonomous car named KITT, that had an incredibly ‘yoke’ shaped steering wheel.

Well, when I just saw the picture of the new Tesla Model S Plaid cockpit, I suddenly thought:

That’s amazing, I always wanted to drive KITT, and now is becoming real!

The look and feel of the cabin seem to me a revised version of KITT’s cabin, modernized with a minimal, sleek design, extremely curated details and what a surprise: a yoke steering wheel on a mass-produced car!

On the left KITT's interiors, on the right the Tesla Model S Plaid interiors.

After a few minutes of enthusiasm, I slowed down and thought about what a designer with a background in UX and ergonomics would think about it. It is cool, it looks cool, it is something that it’s pleasurable to see, but:

  1. Does it work well?

  2. Does it accommodate the needs of a variety of drivers with different abilities?

  3. Is it comfortable to use in cities for maneuvering, or turning in narrow roads?

  4. Is it compliant with regulations and standards for vehicles circulation in public roads?

I’m certainly sure that teams at Tesla developed extensive usability tests and ergonomic research on this steering wheel, but these and many other questions stimulated my curiosity. I think we are used to see little disruptive innovations for road vehicles, if we consider the ergonomics and human-machine interaction experience. The way we drive cars, and we interact with a steering wheel, a throttle or simply how we look outside of the vehicle, hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. However, I’ve recently noticed a rapid push towards advanced human-machine interaction patterns for road vehicles, and I believe the new Tesla ‘yoke’ steering wheel could be one.

By doing some research I discovered that the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) published on January 13, 2021 a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on a much anticipated standards for Occupant Protection for Automated Driving Systems (ADS Occupant Protection) available here.

Among several fascinating aspects one that caught my attention was the ‘number of requests of information received from NHTSA to assist stakeholders in determining how existing FMVSSs apply to ADS-equipped vehicles developed without traditional manual controls (e.g., steering wheels) and other unconventional vehicle designs’.

In response to these requests, ‘NHTSA conducted a preliminary analysis of the potential barriers to these unconventional vehicle designs (available here) and issued requests for comment, held public meetings, and initiated rulemaking proceedings on the topic to gather as much information as possible on how best to approach modernizing the FMVSS to account for these unconventional vehicles'.

Coming back to the steering wheel dilemma, the NPRM proposed to change the term “steering wheel” to “steering control” in the light of considering that steering controls may not have a traditional circular shape, such as those shaped more like an airplane ‘yoke’ control.

To this end, the California State Transportation Agency (State of California, or CalSTA) and the Securing American’s Future Energy (SAFE) expressed support for this proposal, rather the Safe Ride News (SRN) expressed concerns related to potential dangers for non-circular steering control. In this uncertainty between responses, ‘Tesla did not comment on the change from “wheel” to “control,” but rather was concerned that the term “steering control rim” in FMVSS No. 208 implied a circular control’.

As a conclusion, the NPRM indicated that ‘a change in terminology does not newly enable manufacturers to equip vehicles with non-circular steering controls, since such controls were never prohibited. All of the standards that address the impact protection of steering controls remain in place. We also disagree with Tesla’s contention that the use of the term “rim” limits the shape of the steering control to a round object. We believe “rim” can reasonably be interpreted as “outer edge.” Thus, various shapes are possible. We decline to make any change to the term “steering control rim” in this final rule.’

The NHTSA was clear, various shapes are possible, therefore, I believe that we could possibly drive a “Tesla-steering-control-like-KITT” sooner than expected.

Now, this just answers to regulatory concerns, however, I am extremely curious to try the new Tesla on a daily basis and see how quickly I can get used to interact with a yoke steering control, rather than a circular steering wheel.

Perhaps for an aircraft or a Formula 1 pilot driving a Tesla Model S Plaid with a yoke steering control would not be a major issue, but I am particularly fascinated to understand what other people think about it.

What is the first impression?

Is it easy to use?

How long does it take to become familiar with it, coming from a circular steering wheel?

Does that shape provide benefits compared to a circular steering wheel?

If yes, what kind of benefits?

Certainly, I feel to argue in favor for this new steering control, specifically mounted on a Tesla for mainly two reasons:

  1. From what the CEO Elon Musk and the Tesla marketing team say, the autonomous driving capabilities on this vehicle are at the top in the category, therefore the interaction that a human driver should have with a steering control are different than what they could have in a traditional vehicle. The Smart Summon and the Auto Pilot features, could heavily change the human-machine interaction normally required for driving.

  2. I am extremely interested to see how such an innovation (I leave it to you to define it as a disruptive or a sustaining innovation) in terms of ergonomics and usability of a steering control can shape the user experience in the pre-sales and potentially in the post-sale (daily use) of such popular electric car.

With these reflections, and several questionable feedback from the media [1, 2, 3, 4], about the possibility to see the new Tesla with the ‘yoke’ steering control, I am convinced that making is a good thing and asking questions is a powerful tool to innovate for the society.

Despite there are pictures circulating on the internet about the new cockpit of the Tesla Model S Plaid, displaying a traditional “rounded” steering wheel, Tesla's website still shows the new steering control. I then believe that we will be likely to see the new Tesla with the yoke steering control sooner than expected and we can finally feel like Michael Knight driving a 2021 KITT.

What do you think bout it?

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