TESLA Motors is no stranger to disrupting the car world but when it revealed the new Model S saloon and Model X SUV last week, complete with U-shaped yokes in place of the usual steering wheels, even the most open-minded commentator was stunned by the company’s brazen disregard for convention. “Is that legal?,” the world wondered in unison.
American publication Road & Track contacted its national safety body immediately, and the response was vague, to say the least. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said: “At this time, NHTSA cannot determine if the steering wheel meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. We will be reaching out to the automaker for more information.”
Of course, cars on the road in Britain are governed by different regulatory bodies, and Driving.co.uk began making our own enquiries. The Driver and Vehicle Safety Agency (DVSA) referred us to the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA), as that’s the agency that handles the legality of mass-produced cars, rather than one-off special vehicles such as kit cars, which comes under DVSA jurisdiction.
The VCA, though, passed it up to the Department for Transport (DfT), which oversees all agencies and policy decisions when it comes to roads, vehicles and road safety.
The answer we received is good news for Tesla, in the UK at least: “The regulations relating to steering equipment (UN-ECE Regulation 79) does not stipulate any shape or size of the steering wheel,” read the single sentence response.
That means a steering device could be a wheel, a joystick, a yoke or even a handlebar – there is no requirement regarding its shape or size. One might think handlebars might be acceptable only for quadricycles – that category of vehicle somewhere between a car and a motorbike – but the DfT response suggests otherwise.
In fact, DfT guidance on MOT inspections specifically makes reference to testing of yokes and handlebars on vehicles – as long as there isn’t excessive movement, play, wear or damage so as to render a vehicle dangerous, it will pass.
Of course, accidents resulting from poor design would result in a recall, but as long as Tesla’s U-shaped yoke isn’t dangerous, it won’t attract the attention of UK regulators.
Tesla’s games system may be more problematic
But Tesla might not be able to relax: another new feature available on the Model S and Model X is Tesla Arcade, a built-in games console.
With “up to 10 teraflops of processing power,” the system is nearly as powerful as the new Microsoft X-box Series X console and capable of running major games releases including The Witcher III and, as boasted by Tesla boss Elon Musk, Cyberpunk 2077 – a game that has been notoriously encumbered by bugs since its launch at the end of 2020, especially on lower-powered games machines.
It can play Cyberpunk
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 28, 2021
Impressive though its credentials may be, while “wireless controller compatibility allows gaming from any seat” the DfT pointed out that Tesla’s games system must not be available to front seat passengers while the cars are in motion.
“By law, drivers can only use screens when viewing driving information related to the state of the vehicle or its equipment, when navigation is displayed, or when assisting in viewing the road around the vehicle,” a spokesperson said.
“Under the Road Vehicles (Constriction and Use) regulations, screens used for anything else should not be visible to the driver while the vehicle is being driven.”
Which means that if the front touchscreen in the cars displays the game while the car is in motion, it would be falling foul of the law, even if it’s being played by the front passenger, not the driver.
Gaming while parked is obviously lawful, and when on the move rear passengers would be legally allowed to play games displayed only on the rear screen, which is position between the front seats.
A Tesla spokesperson was unable to comment on the exact nature of the games system but pointed out that the TV and video players already available on Teslas disappear from the main screen when the cars are put into Drive. It is likely the same will be true of Tesla Arcade.
Elon Musk’s driverless car dream
Adding game consoles and other entertainment devices to cars is arguably the next step in vehicle design, though advancements in self-driving technology and changes in law may be required before they become commonplace. Most car makers have resisted adding anything to their vehicles that may impact safety, even if they might prove popular with buyers.
Musk, though, is clearly looking to disrupt the market once more. He is a vocal advocate of self-driving vehicles, and the “Autopilot” on Teslas is one of the more advance semi-autonomous systems available in cars today. However, despite claims of “full self-driving” capability, Teslas are still not fully autonomous.
Musk courted controversy in 2019 by predicting the roll-out of Tesla’s “feature-complete” autonomous system, which would negate the need to have a steering wheel or pedals in the cars at all, within a few years.
Speaking at a briefing on his company’s self-driving tech, Musk said: “Probably, two years from now, we’ll make a product that has no steering wheels and pedals, and if we need to accelerate that time, we’ll just delete parts. It’s easy.”
Such a vehicle would free up the occupants to do whatever they like, as long as it does not interfere with the vehicle’s safety, whether it be playing video games, watching movies, browsing the internet or carrying out video calls.
However, such a car is some way off from making it onto UK roads, regardless of whether the technology is ready. While driverless car trials are underway in the UK, these are in approved, controlled areas and safety drivers, ready to take over at any moment, are still required at all times.
Drivers on public roads outside these trials are required by law to be in control of their car at all times, with their hands on the wheel.
Musk conceded during the 2019 briefing that a car without a steering wheel or pedals would require regulator approval. But that is clearly his end goal.
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