The Yoke steering wheel; It’s use on the 2021 Tesla Model S, Lexus LF-Z Concept and MG Cyberster concept, among others, suggests the emergence of a new design trend. But there’s a pesky question lingering over this childish affectation: is it legal?
NHTSA isn’t saying.
But in a release to the website Teslarati last month that “NHTSA is aware of the recently launched Tesla steering yoke in certain Model S vehicles. We requested and received information from Tesla about the steering yoke and we remain actively engaged with the company during our review. NHTSA routinely engages with auto manufacturers and suppliers to better understand the new technologies and features they develop and introduce to the U.S. fleet.”
Not just Tesla
Ordinarily, the use of a yoke steering wheel on a concept car, such as the Lexus or MG wouldn’t necessarily garner attention. But reports of Teslas’s intention to offer it as an option on the refreshed Model S and Model X interiors has brought attention to the two aging designs as a slew of newer electric vehicles from other manufacturers come to market, such as the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, 2022 Volkswagen ID.4, 2022 GMC Hummer EV, 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS, 2022 Mazda MX-30, and 2023 Cadillac Lyriq.
But other automakers are yoking themselves to the trending design concept now that it has appeared on a Tesla. MG, the iconic British brand revived by Chinese automaker SAIC Motor, unveiled its Cyberster concept car, which debuts at the Shanghai Auto Show next week.
“The Cyberster is a bold statement that looks strongly into MG’s future,” Carl Gotham, director of SAIC Design Advanced London, said in statement.
Similarly, Lexus revealed the Lexus LF-Z Concept late last month, a battery-electric crossover concept vehicle that reveals Lexus’ future direction in electrification. And in the cabin? You guessed it.
Lexus says that using steer-by-wire eliminates the need for a
mechanical connection through the steering shaft. This enables a more direct steering response do that the vehicle turns with less steering angle, which is most likely why the concept is shown with a yoke. It remains to be seen if Lexus will bring a vehicle to market with a yoke.
It’s been tried before
Yoke steering wheels are far from a new idea. Many automakers have considered it, but it’s never proven practical enough to reach production.
Harley Earl, inspired by aircraft design, used a yoke steering wheel in the turbine-powered 1953 Firebird I concept car at GM’s Motorama, looking much like a missile with four wheels. It was seen decades later on K.I.T.T., the 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that starred in the NBC crime drama alongside David Hasselhoff. The artificially intelligent supercar outshone the actor behind the wheel, but the car became a fixture in video games, ones no doubt played by current automotive designers in their youth.
Of course, GM went even further on the 1986 Oldsmobile Incas concept, a vehicle designed in concert with Ital Design. Thankfully, this idea never reached production.
Of course, cars didn’t originally have steering wheels; they had tillers. The device was adapted from sailboats, which were steered by stick, called a tiller, attached to the rudder at the back of the boat. Turning the tiller affected the direction of the boat’s travel.
In cars, the tiller controlled the front wheels. But its place in automotive history was short after 1894, when Alfred Vacheron entered a Panhard in the Paris-Rouen race that he had modified with a steering wheel.
Four years later, the French manufacturer introduced a steering wheel in all its models. Other manufacturers followed suit, before it spread to America, where Alexander Winton produced the first mass-market car equipped with a steering wheel in 1898. This was followed in 1901 by the Packard Model C.
Not a toy, but questions linger
OK, so the steering wheel is still with us more than a century later. But the yoke steering wheel has earned its spot in real world uses. It can be found in airplane cockpits, vehicles whose steering requirements are different than those of a car.
They’re also used in Formula 1 racecars, ones with steering ratios far quicker than those used for passenger cars, where slower steering ratios call for hand-over-hand rotation of a steering wheel. Using racetrack steering ratios isn’t safe for street use, which is why automakers use variable ratio steering, which changes the ratio based on vehicle speed.
But even without faster ratios, how easy is a yoke steering wheel to safely use in emergency maneuvers? Will customers accustomed to a traditional steering wheel not know how to respond? If they momentarily lose their grip on the wheel, say after hitting a pothole, will they easily be able to grip the wheel and maintain control?
These are questions that have yet to be answered, ones that will be examined by NHTSA. In the meantime, odds are most of the refreshed 2021 Model S and Model X models will come with a standard steering wheel.