Last week, Aptera revealed the latest version of the vehicle’s interior. While it may not be the final design, it does show the direction the company wants to go as it moves through the development process. Most of the interior is fairly standard EV fare, including a very simple interior, a center display, etc. The company departed from Tesla’s formula by including a display in front of the driver, which appears to show the side camera views (in place of side mirrors). But one design choice proved to be controversial: a yoke steering wheel.
Why The Yoke Stirs Controversy
If you ask Tesla’s biggest fans, they’ll tell you that being against a yoke is a sign of neophobia (fear of new things). If people who don’t like the yoke would just try driving with it, they’d figure out that it works well, but the skeptics are too closed-minded to try it out. But it’s really not that simple.
The first problem is steering ratios. Racecars, like you’d see in Formula E, have yoke-style steering wheels, but nobody is going to go out and get groceries in such a vehicle. With fast steering (steering that requires less than a turn from lock-to-lock), you never have to move a racecar’s wheel more than 90 degrees, so you don’t have to do a hand-over-hand maneuver. But such a fast steering ratio isn’t comfortable or safe for street vehicles. So our normal road cars (including Teslas) often require a driver to use hand-over-hand techniques for complex low-speed maneuvers (like parallel parking, maneuvering in parking lots, backing a trailer, etc.).
With a round or mostly-round steering wheel, doing hand-over-hand isn’t a problem at all. But when there is a portion of the circle missing, things get complicated. Making sharp turns, especially at lower speeds, requires regripping a steering wheel that isn’t always in the same spot when blindly gripping with your hand. You can read a lot more about the issue at this detailed Consumer Reports article, or this short video:
There are possible solutions, which I’ll get into further down, but suffice it to say that the safety and comfort issues aren’t just something people are making up because they hate Tesla. Dismissing all such criticism isn’t good for the company, as it makes the fans look like a cult. It’s better to address concerns people have than to just call names or insert fingers in ears and hum loudly.
The second problem is aesthetics. Sure, despite functional issues, the yoke does look cool, but that’s just me. Many people don’t want one on that basis alone. Once again, telling people that they should just learn to like it instead of having their own personal tastes doesn’t make people feel like they’re being listened to or that their opinion/taste matters, so they’ll go with another car manufacturer who at least gives them the option of a round wheel.
The third issue is related to the first and second one. We all know that Elon Musk doesn’t want to do market research. On the one hand, he’s got a point that never doing anything fresh or new will mean the market will always trend toward what it already has, so you can’t just rely on market research or you’ll stifle creativity and innovation that could lead to things people like even better than what they have now. On the other hand, completely ignoring the market can lead to producing products that are just a little too avant-garde for customers (and thus leads to suffering sales). Thus, achieving a balance that isn’t dominated by either market research or unthinking novelty is important.
Along these lines, I’ve seen a number of people on social media saying that they feel Aptera is just blindly following Tesla on interior design, especially with the choice to go with a yoke. I personally think that this may be true (note that I said “may” because I don’t know for sure), or that Aptera’s work with Munro & Associates could have led them to following Tesla (Sandy Munro has become a big fan of Tesla in recent times), and I’m not the only person to consider this possibility. People dislike Tesla for a variety of reasons, so if people think Aptera is blindly following Tesla, that stirs up controversy all by itself.
This is also where I found Aptera’s defense of the yoke.
We have invested a lot of time understanding the merits of using the “yoke” style steering wheel. Our efforts resulted in a gateway decision which upholds the Aptera ethos of efficiency and user experience. We appreciate your thoughts – we have not made the decision lightly!
— Aptera (@aptera_motors) March 31, 2022
I’m personally not happy with the decision, but I don’t want to be one of those people who shows up with a complaint and no ideas on how to make things better.
One possible answer: Offer a normal round wheel for a small extra fee. I understand that it costs the company more to offer a second steering wheel option, so it makes sense to pass that cost along to the people who don’t want the standard yoke wheel. Many people would gladly pay a few hundred extra bucks to get what they prefer.
Another possible answer is to use a variable ratio steering rack. This would make it so that the yoke wouldn’t have to be turned hand-over-hand because the ratio differs according to driving speed and/or steering angle. This would eliminate the safety concerns because the steering wheel just wouldn’t need to turn that far in any situation. The downside: this would add to the cost and possibly the power consumption of the vehicle, so it may be a non-option for the company, especially so late in the design process.
Another thing the company could do is create some videos showing how to safely use the yoke in low-speed situations, and how it isn’t a big problem once you adapt your driving a bit (this is a common argument we hear from Plaid owners). By proving this out and addressing the concerns, many skeptics could be won over.
I know Aptera won’t do this, but it’s worth mentioning the “Brodie knob” or “suicide knob” as a possible solution for yoke discomfort. Attach one, and you can make complex maneuvers with one hand and avoid hand-over-hand completely. These devices, of course, have earned a bad reputation the same way “suicide doors” did, so attach one of these to your steering wheel at your own risk. I may try one of these just for fun sometime, but they’re known to bust your knuckles and even break wrists.
If there’s anything I’ve learned, it is to not embrace either side’s arguments when there’s controversy. I’m not going to blindly embrace the yoke, but I’m also not going to blindly hate on it. Aptera’s yoke design does appear to differ from Tesla’s design in key ways that could make it a lot more friendly, comfortable, and safe than what Tesla is offering. We also don’t know at this point whether they did anything else (like variable ratio steering or some other behind-the-scenes mechanical work) to make it work better.
So, I’m going to reserve judgement until I’ve had a chance to check one out for myself. I’m hoping to make another trip to San Diego in the near future to get a chance to see how it works personally so I can let readers know what it’s really like.
Featured image by Aptera.