For once we can say that Tesla really has reinvented a wheel. For its newest Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, the carmaker dropped the traditional circular steering wheel in favor of what it’s calling a “yoke.” This yoke is rectangular and reminiscent of what you might see in a jet or a race car. Tesla CEO Elon Musk indicated that the company made the change because, “Yet another round wheel is boring & blocks the screen,” adding that Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” function—controversial due to safety concerns—“in panoramic mode looks way better with a yoke.” Consumer Reports recently published a harsh review entirely focused on the Model S yoke, noting that the organization’s test drivers found the steering apparatus to be hard to hold on to and awkward to maneuver. To get a better sense for how this yoke might affect best practices for driving, I spoke to Ryan Pietzsch, a technical consultant for driver safety, education, and training at the nonprofit National Safety Council. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aaron Mak: What were your first impressions of the steering yoke from a safety perspective?
Ryan Pietzsch: What is the function of this? What are the engineering purposes? We at the National Safety Council hope for a safety approach that uses technology to improve safety. We’re not so sure that’s what is happening here. Was this a design used for improved safety? Or is this more of a design for the manufacturers to have a marketing opportunity? Those things we haven’t had a chance to evaluate yet. Ultimately we want to make sure that the manufacturers have civic responsibility, so that they can promote safety through their engineering practices.
And then it’s still imperative that these manufacturers teach the novice drivers, when they purchase these cars, how to function those vehicles. With the ADAS [advanced driver-assistance systems] technology, we’re seeing a lot of manufacturers that have increased their delivery. When you go to buy a new car—you take delivery of the car—that used to be just handing the keys and letting you go. Now, they spend upward of an hour or two hours describing the features and functions of the vehicle before you drive on the road. For that steering wheel, or the yoke in this case, they would certainly have to have some sort of education for that novice driver, so that they’re aware of its limitations. Currently in defensive driving, we teach two different steering techniques—the hand-over-hand and the shuffle techniques for turning —that are obviously a concern here.
An opportunity that I see for this yoke is to potentially improve a driver’s hand position. I say “potentially” because most drivers today do not have the proper hand position on the steering wheel when they are in an incident, or an accident, or a crash. It used to be 10 and 2, right? That’s what you were probably taught in driver’s ed. We can’t do 10 and 2 anymore because of airbags deploying and forcing watches and rings and stuff into people’s faces. So the proper hand position became 9 and 3. Now, what we recommend at the National Safety Council is actually that we want you to place your fingers on the thumb rests, so your hands are in a position where the engineers intended for them to be. That’s for a regular steering wheel. For this yoke, where are they suggesting that we put our hands?
So if you were meant to hold this yoke at 9 and 3, this would be an improvement on what a lot of drivers are doing right now?
Yes, because a lot of drivers, and even with this yoke, will put their hands down below, which is not optimal for evasive maneuvers. The other piece to this is sometimes you’ll see people put their hands at 12 o’clock—that’s not an option here. Now my fear with this design is that it will promote bad habits and fatigue in the arms. It does take a lot of muscle and energy to hold your hands at 9 and 3 for a long period of time. If you’re going to be driving this vehicle for a period of time, your arms are going to experience fatigue. I’m hoping that people don’t decide to take their hands completely off the wheel, because the other thing that Tesla is known for is promoting the idea that the vehicle is going to drive itself, which it will not. It still requires that driver to have manual steering control.
You also mentioned that the yoke would seem to make hand-over-hand and shuffle steering more difficult?
It actually makes them almost impossible, because you don’t have half of the circle that would be needed for those techniques, especially for a sharper turn such as pulling into your driveway from the street or making a right-hand turn at 90 degrees. That’s part of the training that would be required. Folks develop muscle memory, and that’s an automated response that we want from people, especially in an emergency. But in this case, that would be potentially dangerous if we go to doing hand-over-hand to avoid an obstacle, especially if our hands are off the yoke at the time and all of a sudden we go to grab it and it’s not there. That’s a potential problem. So we’ve got to develop muscle memory for drivers when they’re operating these vehicles. It’s not so much that it’s a novel idea. It’s more that, when you have a novel idea, how do we change drivers’ behaviors so that they’re effective in emergency situations, or in regular driving situations for that matter?
On that point, it seems like muscle memory is so important to the way that we drive. So how would someone go about retraining their muscle memory to use this yoke, and how long would it take?
It will depend on your experience, certainly. I have a lot of years of experience in driving, so for me it would take quite a bit. If I’m driving this vehicle one day and then another vehicle another day that has a steering wheel instead of a yoke, those are both novel instances where actually initially your attention to that detail is going to be very high. It’s when we get away from that newness, that novel situation, that it becomes a problem for that automated response that you will have to the vehicle when something occurs. That would take a lot of time and repetition. It depends on the individual, but just like any muscle memory if I’m trying to learn something new, it’s got to happen at least seven to 10 times concurrently over periods of time for that to happen automatically.
The interesting thing actually would be: How many of us drive the same vehicle every day? And so every time that you switch vehicles, all of a sudden the mind has to remember how to react to whatever vehicle you’re in. You’re actually making it very confusing for your brain to react to whatever environment that you’re in. That’s probably a bigger concern for the greater population.
In the event of a crash, how do you see this yoke factoring into driver safety versus a regular steering wheel?
I don’t see it factoring in actually, because you still have to have the airbag, right? The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards require the airbag and deployment in specific situations. The standards also indicate how the steering control system must react post-crash. Regardless of whether it’s a wheel or a yoke, that housing cannot break away or move so much post-crash, so that’s all based on a crash testing. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were metal steering wheels, and people would crash and the steering wheel itself would cause damage to the driver. The standards became that those wheels have to be able to absorb energy. Actually in that regard, this [yoke] might potentially be a safer option, because you don’t have that wheel. You’ve got more room for the airbags. We don’t have any data that shows it’s safer, but if you look at the history of the steering wheel, it would potentially suggest that.
Another big change with Tesla’s new driving setup is that there isn’t a turn signal stalk or a traditional horn. Instead, you press these touch-sensitive buttons on the yoke itself to honk or activate the turn signal. Does that change anything with regard to driver safety?
Once again, it’s a change, so muscle memory, improper activations, those are all potentially safety issues. But is operating your windshield wipers when it’s not raining a safety issue? No. It’s more of an inconvenience, which actually may become an irritant for the driver. It might be a little bit distracting for them, especially initially when this is all new. The concern is again that novel concept and getting used to this, understanding that you all you have to do is touch them and they activate. Not allowing that to frustrate you while you’re behind the wheel, not allowing that to distract you from the act of driving as we learn how to interact and use this technology. But as far as functionality goes, it doesn’t really matter where this stuff from a safety perspective, as long as it’s available.
With turn signals, I hope that people use them. It’s about developing that muscle memory and pushing the button rather than flipping the lever to turn. My concern might actually be that people in these vehicles just won’t use them, which is a bad idea because, now all of a sudden we’re no longer communicating with other drivers our intent.
Would you make a lot of adjustments to the way you teach someone how to drive safely if they were using one of these new Teslas?
It’s really important that we tie in all of the vehicle technology with this. Putting this yoke into a 1965 Corvette may not be as effective as it would be in this Tesla, because the Tesla has so many advanced driver assist systems that would potentially help with it. I have not used one of these personally, so I’m simply going by the information here and tying that to defensive driving. What we do teach in defensive driving is understanding what the limitations of every element is. This to me is just another technology. We now have to educate drivers what the limitations of this technology are, and what the safety benefits might be.