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Tesla's new steering yoke isn't retro, it's a safety risk

Sure, we all want to live out those KITT fantasies, but there are reasons why that show is fiction.

Just... no.

Let me get this out of the way up top: I watched a lot of Knight Rider when I was a kid. I mean, a lot. As a child of the '80s, I specifically remember pedaling my heart out on my BMX to make sure I got home in time to watch that iconic opening sequence. You probably know it by heart, with KITT poking his Cylon-aping nose out of the dusky desert. The show, terrible as I now realize it to be, was a significant part of my childhood. Back then I really, really wanted to be just like Michael Knight.

Despite all that, I can't help but see Tesla's new KITT-style steering yoke as anything other than a bad idea. I fear it'll not just be awkward to use, it's potentially unsafe. Here's why.

Getting ratioed

The next time you're in your car, count the number of times you need to turn the wheel to make it into a perpendicular parking spot. Better yet, try a U-turn. There's a good chance at some point you'll need to reposition your hands, in what's typically called a shuffle-steer. Now, imagine doing that with only half a wheel. It'd be awkward at best.

"But racecars," you might be thinking. And indeed Formula One and many other forms of on-road racing feature steering wheels that look like oversized Batarangs. The thing is, those cars offer swift steering ratios, needing as little as 180 degrees of rotation to turn from the left-most steering extent to the right. Your average street car? Try 900 degrees of rotation from full left to right. That's two and a half turns.

More rotation means slower turning, yes, but it also means more precision and frankly greater safety. A razor-sharp steering rack is a great thing on the racetrack. On the highway, a tiny bump to the wheel would send you spearing across three lanes of traffic. For your average driver, that's a risky proposition.

Many companies have deployed steering racks that offer variable rates, changing based on speed and steering angle. Even at their quickest, though, these racks don't eliminate the need to reposition your hands for common, daily maneuvers. On top of that, most of them have been panned for making cars feel less predictable and, ultimately, less fun to drive.


I can get behind all the other tweaks, just not the most notable one. 


Losing your grip

Ever hit a pothole and have the steering wheel slip in your hands? It's disconcerting, but so long as your wheel is round (or D-shaped at least) you can quickly regrip the wheel.

Now, imagine that happening on Tesla's new steering yoke. At least one of your hands is going to be grasping at thin air.

Breaking wrists, or faces

Imagine the above scenario but in a more serious situation, like a frontal or side impact. When the front wheels of a car are involved in the impact, the steering wheel can very forcefully twist in one direction or another.

While it's possible to get a sprained wrist or even a broken thumb if you're gripping the wheel too hard, a round wheel will naturally shield your hands and the rest of your person from serious injury. The leading edge of a spinning yoke, on the other hand, has the potential to catch your hands, legs, or even your head if it's a significant enough frontal impact.

I've actually experienced this first-hand -- literally. I have a yoke-shaped wheel on my sim rig and, on one of my first forays with my new Fanatec DD1 wheel base and formula-style wheel, I took my hands off after a minor impact. However, I didn't realize the car hadn't come to a complete stop. It bumped into the wall and spun the wheel, which caught me on the back of the hand. The impact hurt like hell and left me with a painful bruise, but it could have been a lot worse. 

'But full self-driving'

Yes, perhaps a wheel like this will make a lot of sense in the future when cars can be fully trusted to drive themselves, to change lanes on their own and handle that three-point turn without any extra assistance. I'm sorry to say we're not there yet, and assuming you're buying a car that you'll not only need to drive, but actually want to drive, this shape wheel just doesn't make any sense.

Now, I've spent a fair bit of time speaking with Tesla's safety engineers about how they creatively solved many safety issues. That pronounced touchscreen on the Model 3 and Model Y , for example, has edges that could be a problem in a crash. Tesla designed a special airbag with protrusions meant to keep the passenger's head away from it. I'm sure there are similarly creative solutions to the problems this yoke presents, but that still leaves me wondering: Exactly what problem is it fixing?