Elon Musk wanted to get rid of the steering wheel

By pushing to remove the steering wheel from the Tesla Model Y, Elon Musk allegedly alienated his chief engineer, to the point of causing his departure.

The eccentric Elon Musk enjoys a relatively positive image with the general public, at least compared to other billionaires. With its philosophy of all-out innovation and its propensity to publish memes in industrial quantities on Twitter, the boss of Tesla has built up a less rigid and corporate image than Jeff Bezos, for example.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is running smoothly within the company. And according to some testimonies, the general staff of the car manufacturer would even have been the scene of a tad childish spat.

In any case, this is the portrait that the book paints.Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the bet of the century” by Tim Higgins, reporter for the Wall Street Journal. This book, which is intended to be an investigative work, claims that Elon Musk would have been particularly involved in the design process; a situation that apparently tends to make life difficult for engineers. Higgins cites a specific example in particular: Musk would have simply refused to add a steering wheel to his Telsa Model Y. The reason given: no need for a steering wheel on an autonomous car! Particularly sure of his fact, in 2019, Musk did not hesitate to affirm that “the probability of seeing the steering wheel removed is 100%. Consumers will demand it”.

Tensions between decision-makers and engineers

A fad that would have particularly exasperated the engineers of the brand, including the big boss in person, Doug Field. Tired of seeing its founder put his grain of salt into every little detail of the design, the latter would therefore have taken the decision to act behind the back of his hierarchy. Result: At the start of the production phase, the Tesla Model Y was still equipped with a steering wheel. And unfortunately for Musk, it was now too late to delete. This situation would have increased tenfold the tensions already present, to the point of leading to the resignation of Doug Field in 2018.

Note, however, that Elon Musk tore the book to pieces on Twitter, calling it a “false and boring”. He explicitly dismissed some of Higgins’ claims, including an alleged meeting with Tim Cook over a potential Tesla takeover.

This whole story should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. But Musk never hid from wanting actively participate the development of its products; without jumping to conclusions, this story therefore seems plausible. What is certain, however, is that the billionaire’s plans to design a car without a steering wheel did not fly away with Doug Field. This concept is always on the program; there are already designs without a steering wheel, like this concept car from Mercedes-Benz. It will therefore be interesting to observe who will be the first company to produce a commercial prototype, and all the regulatory headaches that will necessarily ensue.

If you want to form your own opinion on this story, Tim Higgins’ book is available here.

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