Car companies are getting more creative by the day with their gearshift designs. Many of them are annoying. Some were downright dangerous. However, no one is more shocked than Tesla’s just-announced shift method.
When asked on Twitter about how shifting works in the updated Tesla Model S and Model X, Elon Musk said that “the car guesses the direction of travel based on the obstacles it sees, context, and navigation map.”
No more stems. Auto guesses the direction of travel based on the obstacles it sees, context and navigation map. You can overwrite on touchscreen.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 28, 2021
He concludes with: “You can transfer on the touchscreen.” We thereby assume that there is a set of controls that appear on the 17-inch central touchscreen (not yet shown in official photos), but let’s put that part aside for a moment.
Tesla appears to have completely eliminated the physical shift lever with these updated Model S and Model X. Previously, both cars used Mercedes-Benz shift levers, which extended from the right side of the gear selection column. You had to move it up or down to switch between Drive and Reverse, then press a button on the end of the stem to place it in Park. Musk believes the car will now be able to guess which one you want based on the context.
Given all the information the car can absorb, this betting system could work fine in many cases. It would require an extremely effective method of informing the driver which gear the car has selected, but it would very likely be able to select the correct gear in most situations. However, it can also make a wrong choice. Regardless of the possibility of ignoring the car’s ‘guessing’, this possibility sounds like a safety issue worthy of investigation.
You may be wondering if this step is legal. We were too. However, a look at federal regulations on shift levers did not reveal a specific code or rule that would prevent Tesla from selling cars with such a shift panel. In all fairness, the idea of a transmission that guesses what gear it should be in is so far-fetched that regulators may never have considered taking it into account.
There is nothing within the rules to suggest that placing the controls on a touchscreen is illegal as well. As long as the gearshift positions are identified and shown when the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards says they should be, Tesla seems to be clear. But just because something is or appears to be legal doesn’t make it a great idea.
Most shifters are electric at this stage in the game, but they are still operated with buttons, knobs, or levers that require pressing, turning, or pulling. Tapping a touchscreen for Drive, Reverse and Park is a step further than any other manufacturer in the world. There’s the question of security: did you really put it in Park? Or did the touchscreen not record your fingerprint? The long-term reliability of Tesla’s touchscreens is also worth noting. Will the screen work without interference for the life of the vehicle? Now that it holds the key to the vehicle’s most vital controls, it must, and the company’s track record isn’t exactly impeccable in this area.
That’s not to say other shifter designs aren’t cause for concern either. Jaguar Land Rover’s retractable dial is one of the most disturbing of any traditional automaker. Will it still rise and fall as it should in 20 years? Who knows.
Tesla’s “guess” shifter algorithm also raises many open questions. Will it work correctly and consistently? Will it show the selected gear clearly enough that people are not caught off guard by a wrong prediction? That’s not to say it can’t work. He may have to learn your routine before he can properly predict what gear to be in, but given how capable Autopilot is these days, we suspect he’ll be pretty good at observing the environment. Using it is the only way to find out. Let us know your thoughts on the new “shifter” design in the comments below.