Reinventing the wheel: Toyota and Tesla’s Yoke Steering Wheels

Tesla Model S' yoke, something Toyota want to replicate (Photo by Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images)
Tesla Model S' yoke, something Toyota want to replicate (Photo by Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images) /

It’s a Monday at 8.30 am, and you’re late for work. The sky is grey, and it is cold. Just as you take a sip of coffee, the traffic starts to move. In the mad rush to put your mug back down, you spill some coffee over yourself. You take a deep breath. You look up out of your window, and a grey SUV passes you. You notice this grey SUV has a yoke steering wheel rather than a normal steering wheel. You start to scream uncontrollably.

Yes, I am a fossil, and I’m trying my best to stay with the times in terms of car technology. But what on Earth is going on right now with Tesla, at first, and now Toyota? Why are car manufacturers literally trying to reinvent the wheel? What is a yoke steering wheel? And will it catch on?

What is a yoke steering wheel?

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been inside a car before, and if not, you’ve probably at least seen the inside of a car before, and if not, why are you reading this? If you’re in the first two categories, you’ve probably used or seen a steering wheel. Genuine question, have you ever thought to yourself when steering, “I wish this was harder to use and looked worse.”

Well, it’s your lucky day because this is where the ‘yoke’ steering wheel comes in. The latest reinvention of the steering wheel comes from airplanes. The yoke is simply the steering column of a plane, and that’s what the yoke steering wheel is. It’s a steering wheel made to resemble an aviation yoke.

 Why does Toyota want yoke steering wheels? Should you want one?

Well, there are actually some arguments for the ‘yoke’ steering wheel. First off, it would improve your field of vision. With the traditionally round steering wheel, your view is slightly obstructed by the top of the wheel. However, with a yoke, there isn’t anything obstructing the bottom of your windscreen. With this, it also doesn’t interfere with your view of the dash so you can see things like speed easier.

Secondly, another safety reason for the yoke is that it forces the driver to keep their hands in the ‘9 and 3’ position. This is the safest and most common steering wheel grip. It’s even often mentioned in films and TV shows when a character is learning to drive.

I really don’t think either of these things would be significant enough to change something so consistent in the car as we have come to know it. If manufacturers are honest there aren’t any other reasons for this apart from being futuristic for the sake of being futuristic.

Will the yoke steering wheel catch on?

At the moment, the yoke steering wheel is only an option on the Tesla Model S, the Lexus RZ EV SUV, and the Toyota bZ4X. However, according to Car and Driver, BMW has also patented something similar to what the Model S and the Lexus RZ SUV use. If any of you remember that game ‘Bop It’ from the early 2000s, it sort of looks like one of them. In other words, it looks terrible. Kia also revealed their EV9 concept with a yoke. Luckily, that didn’t make it onto the production model. Seemingly, Toyota has seen Tesla’s idea and decided to go along with it despite negative feedback. Great job, Toyota.

So, is this just a fad, or is the yoke steering wheel the future?

Luckily, for all my traditionalists who prefer the normal steering wheel, the yoke probably won’t be the future. The first reason is that it has worse usability, as you can’t move your hands because you’re essentially confined to one steering position. This is especially true on a long drive when you want to readjust your hands, but you have to keep your hands in one place. Secondly, the visibility benefits of a yoke steering wheel just aren’t big enough. If your car has a steering wheel like something out of a ship you might struggle with visibility. I can’t think of one time where I have felt as if my normal steering wheel is impeding my view.

I think the yoke is just a fad, and I can’t wait for it to go back out of fashion. It doesn’t look good, it’s less useable and not much safer. Its only plus is that it looks futuristic, but does it though? Not hugely, at least to me.