Tesla is known as the great disruptor of the automotive industry, and that was more or less applicable when it came to building desirable electric cars in the 2010s. Too much of that reputation is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, though, based on concepts that (still) haven’t seen production and the baffling bluff and bluster of captain and helmsman Elon Musk.
This week saw the updated Model S - arguably Tesla’s least annoying car - gain a landscape-format touchscreen for the first time, two wireless phone-charging pads and 10 teraflops of processing power so rear-seat passengers can go gaming with performances matching the latest games consoles. But they’ve also replaced the steering wheel with a vaguely Knight Rider-esqe yoke. Remember that old meme with the outline-drawn figure facepalming himself so hard his hand goes right through his head? That’s how we feel right now.
It’s becoming the expectation. A Tesla announcement drops. You gather friends and loved ones on a Zoom meeting, put some piano jazz on in the background and read through it, sharing the wonder of exciting new features mainstream car makers are too set in their ways to even consider. And, inevitably, bonding with the same Zoom buddies over some laughable or frankly dangerous new feature that mainstream car makers simply aren’t daft enough to put on a car.
I mean: a yoke?! Skipping to the bottom line, here, I can only assume it’s there to gain press attention and it works on that front. The teensy-tiny problem with it is that it can’t and won’t work as a steering device that sends the car where a driver tries to point it. If there’s only one position you can keep your hands, it’s not safely possible to extend the rotational travel of the yoke past the point where your arms cross.
That means the Model S would have to have a steering ratio that makes the fastest track-biased supercars’ equivalents look unresponsive and dull. It’d have to be so fast that the slightest twitch of the yoke on the freeway would see the S attempting to mount the car in the next lane. Not what we’d call ideal. Sneeze and you’ll be airborne over the grass bank beside the carriageway. It’s either this unworkably fast solution or an insanely limited steering lock in bizarre mimicry of ancient pensioners in Nissan Notes who can only turn the wheel so much and always end up on the wrong side of the road on corner exits.
Hopefully we don’t need to go on. Tesla needs to be wary. It’s building a reputation as a car maker that can move faster than all others on a software front, but it’s still behind on the business of mass production and keeps on getting its execution infuriatingly wrong. Take the fact that, to change the wiper speed in the Model 3, you have to use the touchscreen. A German man temporarily lost his driving licence after crashing while trying to do just that. With the best will in the world it’s only partly his fault: it’s a design that never should have made production because it’s fundamentally dangerous. Investigations into touchscreens are happening right now.
We have to assume the yoke won’t make production, for the same reason. Unlike for touchscreens there’s legislation in a lot of countries that prevents designs like this. Indeed, an image of the new cabin with a regular steering wheel has been doing the rounds. But if you’re not going to display a base level of sobriety when you first present your car, why bother? Why yank people’s chains just because you can? Tesla needs to get the basics right before it can get away with this nonsense.
The explosion of creativity at Tesla has still only yielded three successful production vehicles, and even those have been fraught at all stages of their lives with silly problems of various sorts. Who knows whether the Cybertruck or a new Roadster will ever see the light of day as consumer-ready products – and as it stands the Cybertruck won’t even be road-legal in some markets.
Tesla’s brand image is slowly drifting away from the reality of what it produces. If that continues; if the products don’t start to do the basics better and marry clever tech with safe and sensible interfaces, the company may find that people stop focusing on clever software innovations and start to laugh at whatever daft decisions have been made this time. There’s much the rest of the industry can learn from Tesla, but the yoke shows Tesla still isn’t learning its own lessons either.