It’s no secret that I’ve not been a fan of yoke-type steering wheels. Sure, they look kind of cool, but they don’t really offer any actual improvement in the way a car is controlled, even in situations where steering ratios are altered or other compensations made. It’s just not making things better. The same goes for Tesla’s implementation of turn indicator controls on the yoke, which they accomplish with a pair of buttons, one atop the other. This approach got an unusual amount of attention recently, as a Tesla owner and fan posted a video on Twitter that suggested the buttons were superior to stalks, and the post got over 16 million views and over 4,000 replies. Clearly, people have thoughts about how they indicate their turns, and, unsurprisingly, so do I. The indication of turns is what separates us from the baser animals, and the methods by which we accomplish this matter. So let’s dig in a bit.
First, if you haven’t seen the post and video, here you go:
To everyone arguing against Tesla removing stalks: what looks easier to you? pic.twitter.com/UE0Cl57xZh
— Jeff ????✌️ (@JeffTutorials) May 25, 2023
Not much to it, is there? And yet, in these meager six seconds of video, a lot is revealed and, perhaps more importantly, a lot is not. First, the miming of how a hand would activate the turn signal stalk here is wildly exaggerated. Nobody moves their hand like that to flick the turn signal stalk. That’s more like the motion you’d make to shift the three-speed manual transmission lever on a Studebaker, if it was on the other side. You don’t need to put your whole arm into the act of flicking the signal lever; it can be done by extending your fingers as you’re turning the wheel, and the direction the wheel is turning is the direction the stalk needs to move. It’s almost like you just reach out as you’re already going by.
It becomes muscle memory, and effortless.
Maybe we need some diagrams. Here’s the basic situation, with both types of controls in place:
Okay, so let’s look at what it takes to indicate a turn while making a right turn here, without the shitty overdone pantomime of the video:
You can flick the stalk with your fingers as you turn past it clockwise, flicking the lever up; or, you use your thumb to push the “up” button on the wheel. I’d guess once you’re used to it, you wouldn’t really need to look at the wheel to do it, but there is more target accuracy required to hit the button – which is close to the button for the other direction below it – than there is required to flick the stalk, which pretty much just requires extending one or more of your fingers off the wheel and encountering the stalk as you rotate past. As anyone who has ever done this in a car can tell you, it’s tough to miss.
Now, here’s the other significant advantage of the stalk approach: a stalk never moves. Let’s look at where the indicator controls are if you’re already steering the wheel:
Sometimes, you will need to indicate a turn when your wheel is already turned. This can happen in a lot of different scenarios, like when you’re preparing to exit a driveway onto a road or you’re indicating readiness to turn into a parking spot, marking your intended plan, or you’re on a roundabout and need to signal when you’re exiting, or lots of other situations. It’s not that uncommon. And yet, in any case where the steering wheel isn’t dead straight ahead, those turn indicator buttons will be somewhere else. They can be anywhere on the circle of where that steering wheel can turn. They can be 45° above or below where you expect them or 120° away. Once they get to, say, 90°+, the orientation of the controls in relation to one another changes, too.
What was once a button atop another will become two side-by-side buttons. Where top button meant right and bottom means left reverses once the wheel passes that 90° mark. There’s no way that’s better. A stalk stays in the same place, requiring the same motion for left and right, which is how muscle memories are formed. When the wheel is turned, you’d have to give at least some kind of glance to know where the buttons are and how they’re oriented. Sure, if you keep your hands locked at 9 and 3 like they say you should when track driving, I guess that could be okay, but let’s be real: that’s not how people tend to drive.
Sometimes we just hold the wheel at the bottom, sometimes we rest a hand on top, and okay, if it’s a yoke, you can’t do that, and you mostly have to keep your hands at 9 and 3, but, well, that sucks.
I noticed that a lot of the replies imply that people don’t like the buttons simply because of tradition or habit or the unenviable state of being a boomer:
buttons are easier, but people dont like to get out of their comfort zone and try something new… ahem boomers
— Mystic (@Mystic2133) May 25, 2023
I also see replies analogizing this decision to other tech-based interface decisions:
I remember friends telling me the iPhone would never catch on because pressing buttons on the screen wouldn’t provide the physical click feedback .
— Pango (@Nateyesme) May 26, 2023
These aren’t really germane, not just because we don’t have decades of muscle memories for smartphone controls like this, but also because we’re not controlling 4,000 pound machines going at high speeds with our phones. Well, most of us aren’t.
There are also many replies stating much of the same things I’m saying here, too. It’s remarkable how many people feel strongly about all of this, and, really, why shouldn’t they? Change can be important or scary or needed or difficult or frivolous, or maybe even all of that, but when a change seems to be happening for reasons that don’t actually improve things, I think people are pretty good at assessing that. If there’s some huge advantage here, usability-wise, I don’t see it. What a number of replies have been suggesting as a valid reason is cost:
Cost Keith, No stalk saves how much? say $2 x how many million? Ever notice Elon keeps removing parts not adding parts, cut part cost + production cost. And you thought he did it for our convenience????
— robert baillie (@robertbaillie16) May 26, 2023
…or just the idea that nothing can be better than something:
Best part is no part
— Fabian Rudengren (@fabianrudengren) May 26, 2023
I am curious to hear what you, the Autopian Collective Mind, think of all this. Is there some advantage I’m not seeing? Am I just a pawn of Big Stalk? I’m willing to listen, especially to people who don’t flail their arms to turn on their blinkers.