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Tesla Turn Signals Part 1: The Curse of Software-Controlled Hardware

Updated: May 12, 2022

Update: for the fix for this issue, see my new Part 2 article that solves this problem once and for all.

I recently traded my 2016 Mustang GT (w/stick) for a 2021 Tesla Model Y for a myriad of reasons, and while I LOVE this car and everything it stands for... there are a few quirks that I cannot stand. The idea of a computer on wheels, is a-okay with me. It's funny because for gas-powered cars, I've always despised the idea of adding complex computers to mechanical technology that worked absolutely fine without it. But for electric vehicles, built from the ground-up to be computer controlled, it's an awesome idea and follow-through (at least from Tesla).

However, there is one day to day issue that I find it harder to get over each and every day. Nothing to do with the software quirks version to version, or the full-self-driving insanity that the rest of the Tesla world knows about. It is something so basic, but so integral to daily driving, that I'm not sure how, if, when, why, or what I should even do to adapt to it. That is the turn signals. Or more generally, the 100% software-controlled buttons in the car. Tesla has followed Apple's lead with leaving no electrical switch unguarded by first having to confirm its function through software. And that introduces so many unnecessary headaches.

When you want to courteously flick on the blinker to turn, it should not be a chore, and it should never invoke a question of "did I actually put on the signal?". But with Tesla's turn signal stalk, they've managed to make the act of signaling both of those things. Instead of making it a satisfying physical switch, even though its only function when pushing up or down on it is to put on those signals, Tesla decided to force it to be software-controlled. That in itself doesn't seem like it would be a huge issue, except for the fact that physical switches give you a tactile 'click' into place- and the assurance that you have indeed activated your signal. With Tesla's software, you have no idea unless you turn down the volume and listen for the artificial blinker sound and check the screen for the icon.

Again, that's not a big hassle. The hassle is when you go to turn, and someone honks or doesn't let you in, or when you realize it wasn't on and feel like human garbage for seeming so inconsiderate, or worst of all, when Tesla's incessant and incredibly incompetent 'driver assistance' tries to kick in and alerts you that you may be veering out of your lane because you didn't let the car know you were changing lanes. And there are a LOT of things I'm happy to deal with when testing burgeoning new technology- but as soon as that tech crosses into the physical world and can put humans in danger, my patience ceases to exist instantly.

Every single day, every single drive, at least once I'll put on my signal and notice it didn't activate. And as the days have gone on, I've made such a habit to be forceful and push that stalk purposefully, yet it always fails at least once per trip. It's just one of those 'software gremlins' you can't avoid, like double-clicking a folder on a Mac and it not responding. But this one will get you yelled at, a ticket, or worse, into an accident.

The biiiiiiggest problem though is when that little gremlin shows up, I get caught in a loop. I go to activate the signal again, and then it's stuck. The turn is complete but it keeps blinking. Then I'll try to deactivate it by pushing the stalk the other direction, and it locks into that signal. Not '3 blinks' like a short push is supposed to, but a permanent blink. Push the other direction again, and it locks into that one. You can't stop it. You just have to push into the other direction one last time, in a short press, and allow it to cycle through 3 blinks. So every driver around you sees you going left, no right, no left, no right... yeah right (3 blinks worth)... oh, actually staying in your lane. Okay.

This leads me to an erratic, infuriated twisting of the stalk which also activates the brights and turns them off, and on and off. I can't tell you how many times I've almost ripped the stalk right off the steering column at this point. I cannot believe how unreliable such a simple function can be, and as I just explained with that 'loop', how seemingly malicious it actively tries to be in response. It never normally responds like that during a turn signal activation, but when it ignores me the first time, it seems to know I am frustrated and then toys with me until I just allow it to cycle through its blinkers. There's nothing I can do. It is evil.

What sucks is that as you can probably tell, being a courteous driver is really important to me. It always has been- my dad instilled that in me. And this car puts me in a position where I have no ability to be the driver I want others to be anymore. I despise when people put on a blinker and then never turn, or turn and never turn it off, or turn it on and then I wait for them to merge but they never do so I just sit there cautiously waiting for them to blindly merge at a moment's notice and sideswipe me. So me, being on the road and freaking everyone out with left, right, HIBEAMS, left, right, left, right, right, right, off... would be my worst nightmare seeing another driver on the road do.

Funny enough, I found a youtube video covering this phenomena, but the 'fix' just outlines the basic functions of the stalk... doesn't address the terrible issue I explained. But just for awareness, here is that video:

It's funny because Apple has a similar problem with their magic mice and myself. I would ghost-swipe constantly on every magic mouse I used, I spent months trying to re-teach myself how to 'correctly' use the mice, I went into Apple stores and showed employees my issue... no one seemed to experience it but me. It was such a continuous issue that I stopped using my first iMac (when I bought one to get more familiar with MacOS) for months before I finally bought a normal mouse for it. It's just too bad a turn signal stalk isn't something you can replace like a mouse.

BUT- Tesla makes it just as EASY (for the customer) as Apple does with replacing a mouse. I created a ticket on the Tesla mobile app (same one you unlock the car with), a mobile technician came out the next day, replaced the entire steering column control unit (the stalks are built into the column and not separately replaceable parts!) for free in about 45 minutes. Best, fastest service I've ever had on any car I've ever owned. But, sadly, the problem didn't go away. So I can confirm it wasn't a hardware issue with a faulty switch contact or anything. Darn.

^Here's what the steering column control unit mentioned above looks like.

Serious annoyance. But I'm learning to listen for the barely audible turn signal clicks that come through the speakers now every time I flick them on. Honestly I hate this mechanic, despise it, but I do love the car, and I will never ever ever be 'that guy' (aka 99% of the people on the road nowadays) that doesn't use his signals. So I've just gotta suck it up and adapt to the unreliable car mechanism. Terrible. #1stworldproblems

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