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Why Tesla’s impractical butterfly steering wheel probably won’t make it into production

It's a radical look, but it'll be useless in the real world

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As part of its quarterly earnings call yesterday, EV maker Tesla showed off renderings of an upcoming 2021 Model S refresh. The piece that’s got everyone talking is its butterfly, or as others call it, the Knight Rider-style steering wheel.

But I have some bad news. That steering wheel probably won’t make it in to the production model. Sorry.

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Credit: Tesla
The refreshed Tesla Model S has a butterfly steering wheel, which is probably illegal.

Yeah, it’s super cool — and you’d be able to drive along pretending you’re in Knight Rider or something — but steering wheels have to be complete, round, and not have any bits missing.

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According to legal resource HG.org, cars “cannot have a ‘butterfly’ shaped steering wheel or a fighter jet like joystick. Instead, a vehicle must have a circular wheel at least 13 inches along its outside diameter.”

It is possible to get exemptions from the rule, but these are usually only granted to specialist one-off vehicles, not mass produced consumer cars.

That’s a good thing, because honestly steering wheels like this aren’t useful in the real world. They prevent the driver from shuffling the wheel through their hands as they turn to full lock. A butterfly steering wheel means that you’ll have to cross your arms as you make big turns, which is just clumsy and unsafe.

The renderings also appear to show that Tesla has done away with its gear selector stalk that used to sit on the steering column. Instead, the company says it will move all of those buttons, and the indicator and wiper stalks, to the steering wheel, to put all the controls at the driver’s fingertips.

Tesla’s far from the first company to over-promise on a cool-looking steering wheel. As this article from Tuning Blog shows, car companies love to put radically styled steerers on concept cars to grab attention, and aftermarket modders love them for their unique looks.

It’s unlikely the new Model S will ship with the butterfly steering wheel, but there’s nothing stopping you from putting on your own.

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Published January 28, 2021 — 08:20 UTC