Decades ago, most drivers were trained on how to drive a stick shift. The four letters P-R-N-D formed two perpendicular lines that appeared as double Hs on gear shift knobs in automobiles and became an intuitive part of getting behind the wheel. But as cars began to use more sophisticated electronic engineering, the automatic transmission eventually became independent from the shifter, freeing up designers to rethink how the insides of cars should appear. As a result, outside of the rare traditional manual transmission sports car, the design of the modern electronic gear shifter has nearly given away to buttons and selectors.
Modern cars and SUVs look more and more like giant gadgets on wheels. Some are laid out like airplane cockpits. In other cars, though the shift lever itself doesn’t mechanically control the transmission, it still appears in stick-like design, but laid out in a different pattern than the traditional knob. In other cases, the shifter functions more like a video game joystick. Across the board, maneuvering these new systems is not necessarily intuitive. The question is will drivers remember how to change gears if they cycle through different vehicles? Or might they accidentally hit a wrong button and shift into reverse? We wonder if the altered designs will leave drivers scrambling to find the right button in a clutch.
At the New York International Auto Show, we sought to capture all the new and weird ways automakers present their automatic transmission controls. We saw leather, glass, chrome, and buttons. We didn’t see any touch screens, but our bet is that they are coming soon to a dashboard near you.