Tesla Model S Steering Wheel and Smart Shift – How to Change Gears

by Denis Gurskiy

The new 2021 Tesla Model S refresh has added quite a few new features to Tesla’s luxury sedan. One of the most noticeable changes is the addition of a yoke steering wheel, replacing the traditional steering wheel that we all know. Along with the new steering wheel shape, Tesla has rid itself of the stalks behind the wheel, mapping a lot of the function to the wheel, and automating others, like your gear selection.

Introduction to the Tesla Yoke Steering

The new Model S steering wheel is a controversial change, to say the least. While this type of steering wheel isn’t uncommon in racing and ultra-performance cars, it does seem to be a weird choice for a luxury sedan. Most people will be driving their Model S in a leisurely manner, not bringing it to track day, but I digress. While a Model S doesn’t look like a very fast car, it has the performance to outpace almost any car on the street, so a performance Model S steering wheel isn’t unwarranted. Still, it is interesting that Tesla made the yoke steering wheel standard rather than an option.

Interestingly enough we have seen refreshed Model S’s being transported and a lot of them are equipped with regular wheels. Rumors are going around that the first batch will come with regular steering wheels and will have an option to retrofit the yoke steering wheel for free at a later time. If this is the case, then we might see an option to configure a Model S with either a regular or yoke steering wheel in the future.

Along with the steering wheel missing a whole side, Tesla has removed the stalks. Many of the functions have been moved to the sides of the wheel, similar to what you would see in a Ferrari. One function that was not transitioned over however was the gear selector. That function will now be taken care of by your Tesla who will determine which gear you intend to be in.

Automatic Gear Selection

In Tesla’s never-ending quest to get rid of the steering wheel and develop a self-driving car, gear selection will now be handled by the car. In the Tesla V11 leak we can see the company has dubbed this system “Smart Shift”.

No more stalks. Car guesses drive direction based on what obstacles it sees, context & nav map. You can override on touchscreen. – Elon Musk

As Musk stated, the Tesla Smart Shift will decide the correct gear based by multiple factors such as what the cameras see and your location. For instance, if you pull up to your home driveway the Tesla should be able to tell it’s in a driveway and the GPS should know you are at home. With this information in mind, the car should know to put itself in Reverse when you get in in the morning and in Park when you pull in in the afternoon.

In theory, Tesla could use your driving history alongside the rest of the fleets data to help determine the best gear to be in for your specific instance. With a neural net in place, any wrong decisions with a required manual override would correct themselves prior to the next attempt. Like Autopilot, the car will continuously learn and improve through Tesla Software Updates.

Manual Gear Selection

For those who wish to maintain full control of which gear they want to be in, there is an override option. The digital gear selector is located on the driver’s side of the center console. Rather than buttons, changing gears will be done on a swipe up/down motion on the silhouette of your car. There will also be an option to completely disable Tesla Smart Shift requiring you to solely rely on this method.

Thought on the Model S Steering Wheel and Smart Shift

I have already talked about how weird I feel about Tesla’s decision to make the yoke steering wheel the default in a luxury sedan. While the car is undoubtedly a high performer, its most common use case will be a family car, not a track car. Had the Model S yoke steering wheel been the standard on the upcoming Plaid+, I wouldn’t bat too much of an eye given that it’s looking to become the quickest production car in the world. Once again, I just find it odd that there isn’t an option (at this point) to have a regular Model S steering wheel.

Is the thinking here that your leisurely drives will be completely handled by Autopilot and FSD, and that you will only take over for spirited drives that require two hands?

Moving on to the Tesla Smart Shift. I have made my opinions clear on the matter during our podcast and I understand that I might sound like an old man yelling at the sky. When I read the new Tesla feature, all I could think was “but why?”.

The personal energy required to flick a stalk to change gears is absolutely minimal. It’s such a non-action that I bet most of us don’t even register the moment of switching gears, it takes no time and no energy. What is to gain? We have all seen early Nav on Autopilot and Smart Summon, its never great out of the gate. So while I’m prepared to be wrong, this automatic gear shift will probably inconvenience you with either taking too long to shift or putting you in the wrong gear altogether.

I understand that if Tesla intends to deliver a fully autonomous car then it will have to deliver a car that can shift gears on its own as well. I however do not feel that this feature improves anyone’s daily life today aside from being a neat thing to test out and show off.

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