“JUST AS WE NOW LAMENT THE LOSS OF THIN PILLARS AND CHUBBY TYRE SIDEWALLS, I WONDER IF WE’LL SOON FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT THE HUMBLE STEERING WHEEL?”
I SEE TESLA is at it again. Not content with leapfrogging the entire motor industry on EVs and shaking things up with doors that hinge from the roof and cars that can fart, the tech company from Silicon Valley has now tried to reinvent the steering wheel.
Well, I say that, but what it actually seems to have done is torn the yoke out of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk and fitted it into the dashboard of the new Model S and X. It’s pictured below – not so much a steering wheel as half of one.
Part of me admires Tesla’s relentless desire to innovate while simultaneously thumbing its nose at the stuffy establishment. “Anything you can do, we can do better!” seems to be its mantra. Except for build quality and panel gaps, of course…
I also think the steering wheel looks quite interesting. But then I think about actually using it. Not only will you have to contend with the odd shape, but all of the key controls like indicators and wipers have migrated to the centre of the wheel. That’s the same trick Ferrari pulled with the 458 years ago and the idea is as flawed now as it was then.
And while rectangle steering wheels might work on racing cars that have ultra-fast steering racks and only need to sweep through 180 degrees of rotation, things are different in road cars. Can you imagine trying to complete a three-point turn, or a quickly executed U-turn with only half a wheel to work with?
The beauty of a round steering wheel is that it’s always where you left it, which is a bonus should your hand slip or be knocked off for some reason. Lose your grip in the Tesla and you might be left clutching at thin air…
Which raises the question: is such a thing even legal? Weirdly, not even the rule makers seem to know. In America, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said: “At this time, NHTSA cannot determine if the steering wheel meets Federal Motor Vehicle
Safety Standards”. Authorities in the United Kingdom have taken a different approach. According to the Department for Transport the yoke is legal because “the regulation relation to steering equipment does not stipulate any shape or size of the steering wheel”, which seems to be an odd kind of logic.
Tesla isn’t alone in trying to reinvent the steering wheel, of course. Most brands have had a stab at it at some point or another. Some, like Mercedes and Saab, have even tried to ditch it altogether and introduce joysticks on their concept cars.
But there’s a reason the steering wheel has remained largely unchanged for more than 100 years. Just like trousers and the fundamentals of a bicycle, there are some things that actually don’t need improving. Or over-complicating.
Not that it’s stopped everyone trying, of course. As with the rest of car interiors, which have become festooned with screens, touchpads, and gesture controls, the modern steering wheel is now almost unrecognisable. Granted it’s still round, for now, but today’s focus seems to be more on tech for tech’s sake than it is on comfort and usability. And that, to my mind, is a mistake.
Modern cars are better than old cars in almost every way, but I’d argue steering wheels are one of the few exceptions. Think about it. Compare a modern BMW or Mercedes wheel with one from 20 or 30 years ago and I’ll always gravitate towards the simpler, more elegant design of the older wheel. Just as we now lament the loss of thin pillars, analogue dials, and chubby tyre sidewalls, I wonder if we’ll soon feel the same way about the humble steering wheel? Consider that it’s your primary point of contact with your car, and it might be the one we miss the most.
Mercifully, there’s one brand that is still getting it right. The wheels Mazda fits to the current 3 and CX-30 are almost perfectly formed, elegantly designed and carry just the right amount of buttons and functionality. They’re beautiful pieces of design and confidently convey a message that other brands should listen to: stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes simpler really is better.