Tesla Inc. is attempting to advance steering wheel technology with a new stalkless design that uses sensors to determine which way a driver wants to go. Whether or not the new yoke-style wheel is practical, comfortable or even legal remains to be seen.
The electric vehicle maker unveiled the new wheel design last month as part of a redesign of its Model S sedan and Model X crossover.
The wheel features the same U-like shape found in many race cars. It has two scrolls, similar to what's on the Model 3 and Model Y today, but will incorporate force touch buttons to activate turn signals, high beams, the horn, Autopilot, windshield wipers and voice commands.
But the biggest change is the elimination of the drive-mode stalk which typically controls park, reverse, neutral and drive functions. The automaker plans to rely on the technology that powers its Autopilot driver-assist system to perform those tasks.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter the car will "guess drive direction." And if it guesses wrong, the driver can override the command using the vehicle's touch screen.
An internal Tesla document reported by Electrek states that, "The vehicle uses its Autopilot sensors to intelligently and automatically determine intended drive modes and select them.
"For example, if the front of Model S/X is facing a garage wall, it will detect this and automatically shift to Reverse once the driver presses the brake pedal," the document said.
Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iseecars.com, said the concept represents a step forward in steering wheel technology — provided it works as described. And that's a big "if," he says.
"There's nothing out there this stark, or basic, in terms of a steering wheel column control system," Brauer told Automotive News. "You've definitely entered the world of putting a lot of faith in the electronics and computers to get it right."
It remains to be seen whether a yoke-style wheel will come standard on Tesla's redesigned vehicles or be offered only through option packages or on certain trims.
NHTSA reportedly is seeking more information about the wheel, which is expected to start appearing on redesigned vehicles in the coming weeks.
Aside from the technological questions, many observers have questioned its practicality.
Brauer noted the U shape means you can't turn dramatically because you can't shuffle your hands. Many drivers also tend to rest their hands at the top of the wheel during longer commutes, he noted.
When asked on a recent podcast with comedian Joe Rogan about the comfort level, Musk suggested that advancing autonomous technology will mean drivers won't need to handle steering wheels as much anyway.
"I think Autopilot's getting good enough that you won't need to drive most of the time," Musk said.
"I find you can rest your hand on your knee. ... Anyway, it looks awesome."