The Sticky Situation Over Complex Automatic Shifters

Jaguar XE gear selector
Jaguar XE gear selector | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

As the investigation continues in the recent death of 27-year-old actor Anton Yelchin of Star Trek fame, millions of modern car owners are suddenly finding themselves rethinking what goes into parking properly. Did you effectively put the car in park, or was neutral accidentally selected and you just didn’t notice because the shifter is more complicated than quantum physics? What was once as simple as pushing a button or throwing a lever all the way forward has morphed into an electronic orgy of spinning knobs, sequential stalks, LED-lit levers, and a blinding array of buttons. It’s the complete opposite of everything the manual gearbox stands for, and for as neat as these features may be, they can be damn confusing without a little practice.

The vehicle that killed Yelchin utilized what’s commonly referred to as as a “monostable shifter,” where the gear selector typically sits in the center of three positions, and the driver either pushes it forward or back in order to select driving modes. As Fiat-Chrysler and authorities continue to investigate what caused the young actor’s 2015 Grand Cherokee to roll backward and crush him to death on the side of his sloped driveway, the recalling of cars for this issue is reaching new heights.

Toyota Prius console
Toyota Prius console | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

According to a report by Automotive News on the matter, FCA recalled more than 811,000 Grand Cherokees from the 2014-15 model years, as well as a slew of 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans. Yelchin’s Jeep was among those vehicles. Then, on Thursday, June 23, FCA added 13,092 2014-model year Maserati Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans to the recall list, and sent dealers across the nation software upgrades that prevented vehicles from moving when the driver’s-side door opened. Additional driver warnings that signaled when a vehicle was not in park were also mandated at this point as well.

Prior to this, the automotive group had explicitly informed owners to first read their manuals in order to better familiarize themselves with slick-looking shifters and all of their various functions. But no one seemed to heed these warnings, so in 2015 FCA began replacing all monostable designs with electronically gated devices for a more traditional, mechanical feel. This was shortly followed thereafter by the Grand Cherokee in 2016, when the NHTSA received 121 reports of crashes that were potentially related to the shifter and transmission.

Gear selection dial
Gear selection dial | Source: Land Rover

But FCA isn’t the only one with tricky gear selectors and drive mode switches. Vehicles like the Range Rover Td6 we recently reviewed sported a stylish gyrating knob and numerous buttons for various driving styles. This dial automatically raises itself when the ignition is engaged, and then lowers its way back into the center console when the vehicle is turned off. There also is the 2016 Honda Pilot, with its array of various buttons and lack of shifters entirely, where reverse is engaged via the pulling of a toggle switch, and selecting drive or park is done by pressing various buttons.

People figure out what must be done to put a car in gear pretty quickly, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to feel natural right off the bat. One of the unexpected side effects of using a tricky electronic system is that drivers no longer have the ability to shift intuitively, and transitioning from one brand to another sometimes requires a bit of a learning curve. But the same can be said for infotainment systems and traction settings, and as with all tech features, next generation shifters require some undivided attention and some serious practice.

Audi Q7 shifter
Audi Q7 shifter | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

On paper, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 102 says that all vehicle gear sequences from Park to Low must utilize something known as PRNDL (PRIN’-duhl), but outside of this shifters can look or function any way the automaker wants. Meanwhile, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has its hands full with complaints about vehicles rolling away, difficulties with being able to properly select gears, and all manner of selector issues that tend to typically be the vehicle operator’s fault.

It’s a sobering realization, and an embarrassing one at that, but drivers are actually being outsmarted by their own gear selectors. Yet consumer demand for stylish interior touches, futuristic electronic gizmos, and additional room for things like wireless cell phone charging are at an all-time high, so traditional shifters will likely become more obsolete as time goes by. Personally, we feel that manually shifting your own gears is still the best way to go because when driving a stick-shift the e-brake pretty much becomes a mandatory parking precaution.