For once, we can say that Tesla has really reinvented a wheel. For its more recent Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, the automaker has abandoned the traditional circular steering wheel in favor of what it calls a “yoke”. This yoke is rectangular and is reminiscent of what you might see in a jet or race car. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla indicated that the company made the change because, “Yet another round wheel is annoying and blocks the screen,” adding that Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” feature – controversial due to safety concerns – “in panning mode is much better with a yoke “. Recently published Consumer Reports severe criticism fully focused on the Model S yoke, noting that the organization’s test pilots found the steering gear difficult to hold and maneuver. To get a better idea of ââhow this yoke might affect driving best practices, I spoke to Ryan Pietzsch, 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 leadership yoke from a safety perspective?
Ryan Pietzsch: What is the function of this? What are the purposes of engineering? At the National Safety Council, we hope for an approach to safety that uses technology to improve safety. We’re not sure that’s what’s going on here. Was this a design used to improve safety? Or is it more of a design that allows manufacturers to have a marketing opportunity? These things that we haven’t had a chance to assess yet. Ultimately, we want to make sure that manufacturers have civic responsibility, so that they can promote safety through their engineering practices.
And then, it is always imperative that these manufacturers teach novice drivers, when they buy these cars, how to operate these vehicles. With ADAS [advanced driver-assistance systems] technology, we see a lot of manufacturers who have increased their delivery. When you go to buy a new car you take delivery of the car, previously it was only a matter of handing over the keys and letting you go. Now they spend more than an hour or two describing the features and functions of the vehicle before driving down the road. For this steering wheel, or the yoke in this case, they should definitely have some sort of education for this novice driver, so that they are aware of his limitations. Currently in defensive driving, we teach two different driving techniques: the hand on the hand and the shuffle. turning techniques – which are obviously a concern here.
One opportunity I see for this yoke is to potentially improve a pilot’s hand position. I say âpotentiallyâ because most drivers today do not have the correct hand position on the steering wheel when involved in an incident, accident or collision. It used to be 10 and 2, right? That’s what you were probably taught in driving school. We can’t do 10’s and 2’s anymore because of the airbags deploying and forcing watches and rings and stuff on people’s faces. So the correct hand position has become 9 and 3. Now what we are recommending to the National Security Council is actually that we want you to place your fingers on the thumb rests, so that your hands are in a position where the thumb rests. engineers had foreseen it. . This is for a normal steering wheel. For this yoke, where do they suggest we put our hands?
So if you were to keep that yoke at 9 and 3, would that be an improvement over what a lot of pilots are doing right now?
Yes, because a lot of pilots, and even with this yoke, will put their hands down, which is not optimal for evasive maneuvers. The other thing is that sometimes you’ll see people putting their hands up at 12 o’clock â that’s not an option here. Now my fear with this design is that it promotes bad habits and fatigue in the arms. It takes a lot of muscle and energy to hold your 9 and 3 hands for a long time. If you drive this vehicle for a while, your arms will feel tired. I hope people don’t decide to take their hands off the wheel altogether, because the other thing Tesla is known for is promoting the idea that the vehicle is going to drive itself, which it is doing. Will not do. It still requires the driver to have a manual steering control.
You also mentioned that the yoke would seem to make hand and shuffle steering more difficult?
This actually makes them almost impossible, as you don’t have half the circle that would be needed for these techniques, especially for a tighter turn, like entering your driveway from the street or making a 90 degree right turn. . This is part of the training that would be required. People build muscle memory, and it’s an automated response that we expect from people, especially in an emergency. But in this case, it would be potentially dangerous if we were to go hand in hand to avoid an obstacle, especially if our hands are out of the yoke at that time and all of a sudden we’re going to catch it. and he’s not there. It is a potential problem. We therefore need to develop the muscle memory of drivers when they drive these vehicles. It’s not so much that it’s a new idea. It is more than, when we have a new idea, how to change the behavior of drivers so that they are effective in emergency situations, or in regular driving situations for that matter?
On this point, it seems that muscle memory is so important in the way we drive. Would anyone take care of retraining their muscle memory to use this yoke, and how long would that take?
It will depend on your experience, certainly. I have a lot of years of driving experience so for me it would take quite a while. If I drive this vehicle one day and then another vehicle another day that has a steering wheel instead of a yoke, these are two new cases where in fact, initially, your attention to this detail is going to be very high. It’s when we get away from this new thing, this new situation, that it becomes a problem for this automated response that you will have to the vehicle when something happens. It would take a lot of time and rehearsal. It depends on the individual, but as with all muscle memory, if I’m trying to learn something new it has to happen at least seven to ten times simultaneously over periods of time for it to happen automatically.
The interesting thing would actually be: how many of us drive the same vehicle every day? And so every time you change vehicles, all of a sudden the mind has to remember how to react to whatever vehicle you are in. This is probably of greater concern to the general population.
In the event of an accident, how do you see this yoke taking into account the driver’s safety compared to an ordinary steering wheel?
I don’t see that taken into account actually, because you still have to have the airbag, right? Federal motor vehicle safety standards require the airbag and its deployment in specific situations. The standards also indicate how the steering control system should react after the accident. Whether it’s a wheel or a yoke, this case can’t come off or move that much after the crash, so it’s all based on a crash test. In the 1960s and 1970s there were metal steering wheels, and people would crash and the steering wheel itself would damage the driver. The standards have become that these wheels must be able to absorb energy. In fact, in this regard, this [yoke] could potentially be a safer option because you don’t have this wheel. You have more room for the airbags. We don’t have any data to show it’s safer, but if you look at the history of the steering wheel, it might suggest it.
Another big change with Tesla’s new driving setup is that there is no traditional turn signal or horn rod. Instead, you press those tactile buttons on the yoke itself to honk or activate the turn signal. Does this change anything in terms of driver safety?
Again, this is a change, so muscle memory, incorrect activations, these are all potential safety issues. But is running your wipers when it’s not raining a safety concern? No. Rather, it is an inconvenience, which can actually become an irritant to the driver. It can be a bit distracting for them, especially at the beginning when everything is new. The worry again is this new concept and getting used to it, understanding that all you have to do is touch them and they will activate. Don’t let that frustrate you while you’re behind the wheel, don’t let it distract you from the act of driving as we learn how to interact and use this technology. But when it comes to functionality, it doesn’t matter where these elements from a security point of view, as long as they are available.
With the turn signals, I hope people are using them. It’s about building that muscle memory and pushing the button rather than turning the lever to turn. My concern might actually be that the people in these vehicles just won’t be using them, which is a bad idea because all of a sudden we’re no longer communicating our intention to other drivers.
Would you make a lot of adjustments to the way you teach someone to drive safely if they were using one of those new Tesla?
It is really important to combine all the technology of the vehicle with this. Putting that yoke in a 1965 Corvette might not be as effective as it would be in this Tesla, because the Tesla has so many advanced driver assistance systems that could potentially help it. I haven’t used one personally, so I’m just relying on the information here and associating it with defensive driving. What we teach in defensive driving is to understand what the limits of each element are. To me, it’s just another technology. Now we need to educate drivers about the limitations of this technology and the potential safety benefits.