The Lexus RZ’s Steer-by-Wire Tech Is a Neat Idea Implemented Poorly

The weird steering yoke on the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e
The weird steering yoke on the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e


If the idea of driving a car that has no physical connection between the steering wheel and the car’s front wheels makes you nervous, then you’re probably not alone. It’s a weird idea, and while companies have dabbled with it in the past (Canoo, for example, has a design that earned regulatory approval, and Infiniti had a not-so-great system in the Q50 back in like 2013), it’s never been something that customers embraced. Now, Lexus is looking to bring steer-by-wire to market in the forthcoming RZ 450e electric crossover. I drove a preproduction vehicle equipped with steer-by-wire, and I can’t see a reason why you’d choose this over conventional steering.

Read Jalopnik’s full review of the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e, the company’s first all-electric vehicle, right here.

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In an RZ with drive-by-wire, the conventional steering wheel is replaced with a yoke. Lexus claims that the yoke design makes it easier to see the instrument screen, but I didn’t find the display in the conventional RZ difficult to see at all – and at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, I often have issues with steering wheels blocking gauges. This would be easier to understand in something like the Toyota BZ4X, which has a far less conventional dash layout.

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The interior of the 2023 Toyota BZ4X.
The interior of the 2023 Toyota BZ4X.

The yoke would make more sense with the Toyota BZ4X’s dashboard, which, as seen above, puts the instrument display at a weird vertical, extremely far from the driver’s eyes.

In fairness to Lexus, pairing the yoke with this steer-by-wire system makes much more sense than Tesla’s yoke implementation in the Model S and Model X Plaid. That’s because, in the Lexus, you never need to steer the yoke through a full 360-degree rotation. The Lexus has a highly variable steering ratio, ensuring that you never have to cross your hands over each other, even in parking lots where a bunch of steering input is required to make tight maneuvers.

But the way the steering ratio constantly and dramatically changes makes it very hard to get used to Lexus’ steer-by-wire. It’s likely that you’d develop muscle memory eventually, but I suspect the learning curve will be steep. For example, the steering yoke is very heavy to turn at low speed and when initiating a turn. As you turn further, it gets lighter, and the ratio gets quicker, meaning smaller inputs generate a bigger change in the vehicle’s direction.

Steer-by-wire demo on 2023 Lexus RZ 450e

On the road, this feels mostly fine — it’s rare that you’ll be adding a ton of steering input during normal driving. However, at low speeds, it’s extremely confusing and difficult to drive smoothly. While testing the RZ 450e at a media event, Lexus had me negotiate a small cone course in a parking lot before letting me set off on the road in a steer-by-wire RZ. When company representatives initially asked me to keep my speed under 20 mph, I laughed. But when I got behind the wheel (sorry, the yoke), suddenly, 20 mph felt like too much speed. The unpredictability of the variable steering made it a handful, and the yoke itself makes the RZ really hard to handle.

Weirdly, when I asked Lexus’ engineers what benefits this system offers compared to a conventional steering setup, they couldn’t offer a compelling answer. Lexus claims that steer-by-wire is a mobility solution, but it’s hard to see who that solution is for, at least in its current state. It makes a lot of sense for an autonomous vehicle to steer itself this way, but the benefits are less clear for a human-driven vehicle.

Lexus wants to sell 5,000 RZ 450e crossovers in 2023. The steer-by-wire system won’t be available at launch, and I suspect it won’t be available until at least 2024. It will be very interesting to see what the take-rate is for this system when it does go on sale. I’m betting it will be low, particularly if people have the chance to sample it before buying.

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