Tesla's New Steering Yoke Shows Little Benefit and Potential Safety Pitfalls
Ten CR test drivers chronicle their driving difficulties with the steering wheel replacement in our new Model S
My hands hurt. That’s no surprise—they usually ache at the end of the day, thanks to unlucky genetics and years of writing for a living. But as I type this, the soreness is exacerbated because of an unusual source: A few hours spent behind the new steering “yoke” of the brand-new Tesla Model S that we just purchased for testing.
In case you missed the social media photos and videos, Tesla swapped the tried-and-true round steering wheel for a flat-bottomed, rectangular yoke reminiscent of what pilots use to steer an airplane. A traditional circular steering wheel is no longer available on the Model S nor on the mechanically related Model X SUV, even as an option. And that’s not the only steering wheel change. Flat, touch-sensitive buttons on the yoke replaced the vehicle’s turn signal and windshield wiper stalks. Those buttons also are how drivers now flash their high-beams or honk the horn.
“Yet another round wheel is boring,” he tweeted earlier this month. The yoke might look cool, and it’s not impossible to get used to. But it doesn’t yet seem to offer much benefit, and even a slight drawback is a major concern when it comes to steering a moving vehicle, says Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center.
Although Musk has promised that the fully autonomous Teslas of the future won’t have steering wheels or even pedals, today’s Teslas very much still need a human driver—a driver who is likely very used to a traditional steering wheel. “It’s as if Apple got rid of the iPhone’s headphone jack before Bluetooth was even invented,” Fisher says.
First, the Good News
The yoke isn’t without at least one benefit. In other vehicles, a few of our testers occasionally complain that their preferred seating position puts the top of the steering wheel in the way of the speedometer and other displays. The yoke gives a panoramic view of the Model S’ wide gauge cluster (the screen or gauges that traditionally sit behind the steering wheel) but its bottom right corner blocks a portion of the center control panel, which is also the location of the one button that displays the all-important vehicle controls menu.
Trouble Making Turns
The obvious drawbacks of steering with a yoke became apparent almost from the moment we took the Model S on the road. “Backing out of my driveway, my hands slipped off the wheel multiple times, which was startling,” said Alex Knizek, an automotive engineer at CR.
Traditional methods of making a sharp turn at a corner or into a parking lot or driveway—hand-over-hand turning and shuffle steering—are impossible, thanks to where the yoke “ends”—on a steering wheel, you’d compensate for having to rotate the wheel 180° by starting with your hand at the base of the wheel. But the yoke’s curtailed top and squared-off bottom makes such a move impossible.
Another tester said her hands were too small to get a good grip in the first place as the yoke seemed too thick, apparently designed for larger hands to hold.
(Note that the traditional advice of keeping hands at the 10 and 2 positions has changed with the advent of airbags. AAA and others now recommend keeping hands at 9 and 3, or 8 and 4, and shuffle steering instead of making hand-over-hand turns.)
We also found issues at higher speeds. “Taking turns at higher speed, when the wheel is providing more significant resistance in your hand, there’s nothing to ‘catch’ if you lose your grip, so you can end up momentarily losing control mid-turn,” Knizek says.
Now, imagine that the driver wasn’t as diligent and safe as Alex, and instead had a cup of coffee or a phone in their other hand. That momentary lack of grip could lead to an even greater loss of control.
Hard to Hold On To
Unless you’re a particularly nervous driver, you probably don’t grip your steering wheel tightly. But that’s exactly what the yoke forced me and other drivers to do. There’s nowhere to rest your hands, even if they start to hurt, so you have to grasp the yoke’s handles. Even with Autopilot’s lane centering and adaptive cruise control active, drivers must keep their hands on the yoke.
The lack of a turn signal stalk actually bothers me even more than the steering wheel
For me, such a grip becomes painful after just a few minutes—even more so, because the “grips” on the yoke itself aren’t well padded. Even those without carpal tunnel or repetitive strain injuries had similar complaints: One of our testers took a three-hour highway trip in the Model S, and hand soreness was the first thing he mentioned afterward. And another tester said her hands were too small to get a good grip in the first place as the yoke seemed too thick, apparently designed for larger hands to hold. As a result, she had to grip the yoke uncomfortably harder than she would a traditional steering wheel.
The shape of the yoke itself adds an unnecessary layer of confusion, especially during a three-point turning maneuver. “As you rotate a round steering wheel you always know what to expect, even when you aren’t looking,” says Knizek. “With a yoke, you might get a corner, a flat side, or nothing at all.” Another test driver commented that instead of applying the consistent torque that’s necessary to turn a steering wheel, the odd-shaped yoke requires the driver to exert various different degrees of push and pull forces, which can cause the car to lurch instead of steering smoothly.
In nearly every other car, the turn signal stalk sits behind the steering wheel and does not move as the wheel turns. But the Tesla’s turn signal buttons are mounted on the yoke and move as it turns, so they might end up pointing the opposite direction if the wheel is turned. Multiple CR testers complained that it was extremely difficult to figure out which button to press without pausing to look down at the steering wheel. A few testers confessed that they made some turns without signaling to avoid dealing with the button issue.
If you engage the turn signal switch with a light press, the turn signal will flash three times—useful for indicating a lane change—and the yoke will vibrate once to alert you that it’s active. Press it harder and the yoke will vibrate twice, while the turn signal will stay on until the driver cancels it by pressing the button again. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a distinction between the two because there’s no physical button to press. It’s especially tricky on a bumpy road.
“The lack of a turn signal stalk actually bothers me even more than the steering wheel,” says Fisher.
Sorry 'Bout That!
Like the turn signals, the other buttons on the yoke are touch-sensitive and flush mounted, which makes them too easy to activate unintentionally. I inadvertently flashed my high-beams at oncoming traffic multiple times, only realizing I’d done so after the yoke vibrated to let me know I’d pressed one of the touch buttons. Other drivers had similar problems. “I accidentally washed the windshield and honked the horn at innocent road-goers while making turns,” says Knizek. And another driver who actually had to use the horn when an oncoming truck was about to cross the center line couldn’t find the horn button in time to press it.
Proponents of the yoke might point to the record-setting lap the Model S Plaid set at the Nürburgring, the famed German race track where automakers duke it out for bragging rights. But high-speed racing on a track requires a lot of little steering adjustments, not the sort of big moves that are easier with a wheel than a yoke. Swerving to avoid road debris or a stopped vehicle may be more difficult, says Fisher. “I am concerned if I would be able to control the vehicle well in an emergency situation,” he says.
Case in point: We are currently determining what kind of additional practice our trained test drivers might need before putting the Model S through our avoidance maneuver test, which simulates swerving at a high speed to avoid an obstacle in the road.