Steering wheels in cars have been round for most of automobile history ever since the tiller was phased out for one simple reason: they just work. Designers and engineers have often tried to reinvent the (steering) wheel by squaring off parts of it or making it more oblong, but most eventually reverted to a round thing with some spokes connecting it to the steering column.
Now Tesla is having a go at coming up with something new and it has replaced it with a yoke similar to what you might see on some airplanes, racing cars, Batmobiles or KITT. And it naturally caused some controversy when it was unveiled, prompting wildly opposing reactions, from very conservative ones, to ones praising Tesla for its bold choice.
Even at the delivery event for the first 25 examples of Model S Plaid, company CEO Elon Musk expressed his hope that people will grow accustomed to and maybe even start to like the new yoke (this statement must have been prompted by the aforementioned mixed reactions that it received). However, it doesn’t really look like progress over a conventional wheel, at least not in these two videos that popped up on Twitter.
The original Jalopnik article where I found them had a strong negative bias against the yoke, and if you watch the videos, it’s not hard to see why. The main problem is that it appears Tesla didn’t change the maximum lock that you have to apply in order to turn the wheels fully to one side - it still looks like it’s around the 900 degrees mark.
Yet in racing applications where similar yokes are used, drivers have to apply a lot less lock in order to make the car to turn - it’s usually less than one turn lock to lock. And in that context, where the driver doesn’t have to take a hand off the wheel in order to apply full lock, it works.
But in the Model S, where you still have to turn as much as you would a traditional helm, things aren’t so rosy. As you can see in the videos, the combination of 900 degrees of lock (this appears to be the same as on non yoke-equipped models; Tesla didn't change it), capacitive buttons and a yoke doesn’t seem to make things easy for the driver. In fact, he accidentally hits the horn in one of the videos and it all just looks more cumbersome than it needs to be.
Perhaps it takes a bit of getting used to and this driver hadn’t driven the car enough to get accustomed to the yoke, but we really wonder if this was a change worth making to an otherwise still brilliant car (or cars, because the Model X gets it too). Tesla expects there may be some backlash, surely, which is why there was a photo of the refreshed interior with a conventional wheel buried (and hidden) in the configurator.