Tesla “Yoke” Steering Wheel: Neither Tesla Nor NHTSA Know If It’s Legal

Tesla always seems to find a way to make a big splash with minimal effort. Its release of the updated Model S and Model X was expected. What wasn’t was the “Yoke” steering wheel. The internet has gone nuts talking about the chopped-off wheel and speculating whether it is good, bad, or even legal? What’s wild is that neither the NHTSA nor Tesla itself knows if it is legal or not?

Tesla has literally reinvented the wheel, or so it seems?

An image of the interior of a 2021 Tesla Model S.
2021 Tesla Model S | Tesla

What should have been in the spotlight with Tesla’s Model S updates is this might be the quickest-accelerating production car ever. Instead, everyone is focused on the chopped-off yoke steering wheel. Tesla has literally reinvented the wheel, or so it seems? We’ve seen these in cars like the Batmobile, but that is just for theater. Crazy custom show cars would also on occasion pop up with a steering wheel cut down. 

But a production car with a cut-down steering wheel has never been made to our recollection. Airplanes have them, but the dynamics of flying versus driving are different. No one has ever driven anything but a 360-degree steering wheel, how will the public respond to using it? Maybe the “yoke” is on us?

In the late-1950s and 1960s Chrysler had square steering wheels

A close-up of the squared-off steering wheel in the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette.
2020 Chevrolet Corvette Steering Wheel | Chevrolet

Back in the late-1950s and into the 1960s Chrysler had squared-up steering wheels. It was a novelty, but in use, it did not feel like anything far removed from a round steering wheel. It got attention and sometimes looked a bit goofy, but in use, it was not a reach for a driver’s mind to adjust. Today even the Corvette has one.

But what if you grab for the top half of your yoke steering wheel and it is not there? Your mind is expecting something that has been there since driving school and now it is gone. Road & Track contacted the NHTSA and here’s what their response was, “At this time, NHTSA cannot determine if the steering wheel meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. We will be reaching out to the automaker for more information.” 

Usually, these types of manufacturing deviations need approvals of some kind. Headlight and bumper changes have been mandated by the feds and a certain amount of time is given for companies to comply. But this is the other way around. Tesla is offering it up. But, is it enough of a change from the norm over the last 100+ years that maybe Tesla should have checked with the feds first?

Steering has changed drastically over the years without the public realizing

An image of the interior of a 2021 Tesla Model S.
2021 Tesla Model S | Tesla

RELATED: Report: Steering Wheel Falls Off Tesla Car While Driving

Today most cars need minimal steering movement to make a tight turn. Steering has changed drastically over the years without the public really realizing the difference. Electronic steering has done away with the mechanical link to the front wheels. It’s a big deal but feels so much like what we have driven that nobody notices. 

Because of this less effort for more steering feedback, we would expect that the yoke steering wheel wouldn’t take much to get used to. In practice, you don’t need to reach over the steering wheel to get a good start on an approaching turn. Older cars, especially with manual steering are different. Sometimes you need to extra leverage you get from reaching over the top of the wheel and yanking it over. But not today.

That’s why we would expect that the feds will say “A-OK” to the yoke wheel. Then the question will be if other manufacturers copy the idea or it becomes another hallmark of Tesla?