Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Don’t Blame Tesla – Vagueness of FMVSS, NHTSA Rules Invite Creative Interpretation

by Edward Sanchez | Feb 01, 2021

2021 Tesla Model S InteriorTesla CEO Elon Musk, ever the showman and industry provocateur, shocked many in the automotive community last week with the announcement of improvements for the Model S and Model X. Some of the updates were anticipated, such as the horizontal center display in the interior, and the tri-motor “Plaid+” performance version. By far the most controversial and headline-grabbing of the updates was the new “yoke” type steering wheel. While not completely unprecedented, such a design is seldom seen in production vehicles, due to its impracticality for vehicles with ratio-reduced steering.

However unusual or unorthodox this design may seem, federal statute in the U.S. is vague about the legality and allowability of such a design. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) code, considered in the industry to be the definitive “rulebook” on automotive functional safety for the United States, only specifies the location, identification and function of the horn, and the maximum displacement of the steering column in the vehicle interior in the event of an accident. Aside from those specifications, there are no rules that require steering wheels be a specific shape.

Likewise, there’s nothing statutorily preventing the “intelligent” shifting mechanism on the new models that uses inputs from the vehicle’s sensors to determine whether to go forward or in reverse. The 571.102 Standard only specifies shift position sequence (PRND), and regulations regarding engine stop/start. The fact that the code specifies “engine” rather than “propulsion system” indicates that the code is not written to appropriately accommodate today’s and tomorrow’s electrified powertrains.

The EU General Safety Regulation 2019/2144 is likewise silent on the matter, only stipulating features and functions such as adaptive speed assistance, driver drowsiness and attention, reverse object detection, and an on-board event data recorder, among others.

The feedback from the online community to the gamer-style steering wheel has been uniformly swift and negative. Tesla has received its fair share of criticism in the past for the Model 3’s unconventional single display (including functions and readouts traditionally displayed in an instrument cluster), as well as the Cybertruck’s angular, slab-sided exterior styling. None of those controversial designs have received the near-universal derision and criticism of the gamer-style yoke steering wheel.

Some clever web sleuthing by The Drive revealed a possible “Plan B” if for whatever reason NHTSA or another global regulatory agency put the kibosh on the gamer wheel, showing a more conventional design. However, even in that illustration, the steering column is still stalk-free. Interestingly, Tesla actually follows in the footsteps of Ferrari in this case, which came out with a steering wheel design in 2009 that put the engine start, turn signals, wipers, volume controls on the steering wheel itself.

Although its easy to criticize Tesla and Musk for being “reckless” with the new design, to be fair, there does not seem to be a definitive prohibition on the design. Whether or not it is a good or practical idea remains an open question.

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