Bright Spark

Bright Spark

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It’s a typical Tesla move that has really got everyone talking. Photos of the interior of the new updated versions of the Model S and Model X show a radically redesigned dashboard; at its centre, a different large central LCD screen mounted with a landscape orientation rather than in portrait mode. But the feature that has really set off all the buzz is a new steering wheel that isn’t really a steering wheel at all. It looks more like the yoke-style control column an airline pilot would use to helm a transatlantic jet than a normal car steering wheel. For good measure, the new arrangement also appears to eliminate the column mounted stalks that are used on less flashy cars to operate the turn indicators, windscreen wipers and other features.

No more information seems to be available about how the new set-up works, which has triggered of a further wave of speculation about what Tesla is really up to. The fact that the new control interface features a “wheel” that is open topped suggests that it is designed only to be moved about a quarter of a turn in each direction, giving about half a turn from lock to lock. Existing cars with high geared steering typically have more than two turns from lock to lock, and some cars in the pre-power steering era had five or more turns from lock to lock. Back in the Sixties, the unassisted steering on the Ford Zodiac MkIV required more than six turns, for example.

All of that suggests that the new Model S and Model X may have some radical new sort of steering mechanism quite unlike that fitted to mainstream road cars – perhaps some sort of variable ratio system which gets much higher geared towards the locks, or some type of steer-by-wire technology.

Of course, Tesla wouldn’t be Tesla if it weren’t testing the boundaries, and the question has been raised whether the new set up can fit within existing rules and regulations. Reports suggest that it would be legal in the UK, but according to US news reports, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was unsure whether Tesla’s new control interface would meet federal standards. Apparently, US standards are being modified to allow for the elimination of the steering wheel and pedals on vehicles designed to be operated without a human driver, so perhaps the new wheel foreshadows a new milestone in the development of Tesla’s promised full self-driving technology.

Another interesting aspect of this is that while the new steering wheel has generated plenty of buzz, this has tended to obscure the fact that the Model S itself is now quite an old design, having first appeared nine years ago. The same is also true of many of the other stalwarts of the EV adoption drive. The Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, Volkswagen e-Up! and BMW i3 have all survived well beyond the length of the usual industry model cycle. Perhaps the manufacturers just need to keep these established designs going in order to recoup the heavy investments they had to make to go electric in the first place – especially given that sales were very slow at the beginning.

The Model S and the i3 are futuristic designs bristling with advanced technology, so it is perhaps not surprising that they still feel modern today. And all of these cars seem to have been designed to incorporate substantial upgrades over the course of their model lives. In particular, all now have much bigger battery packs – and far more range – than they had when they were launched.

And that scope for upgrades can also be exploited with cars that are already on the road – the Dutch company Muxsan pioneered swap-outs for larger batteries on the Leaf, as well as offering its own “extender” batteries. As part of its “Renaulution” initiative, Renault plans to extend an existing programme to refurbish and remanufacture electric Zoes to cover 100,000 vehicles per year, including fitting new batteries. Meanwhile, as every fan of Discovery’s television series ‘Vintage Voltage’ knows, there is a burgeoning market for electric upgrades to classics like the Fiat 500 and the Land Rover Defender.

I always thought that the electric car market would be all about a constant stream of flashy technology-packed new models, each more exciting than the last. Instead, it seems to be about making older cars last longer and longer with clever and ever more imaginative upgrades.

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