Hybrids & Electrics

Tesla’s New Touchscreen Shifter Is a Recipe for Disaster

Car enthusiasts might agree Tesla leads the charge in introducing new auto-based and EV technology. The company already produces groundbreaking models such as the Model S, Model X, and Cybertruck. And with each Tesla model, consumers expect new and exciting features.

One of the latest features Tesla announced offers gear-shifting controls through the in-car touchscreen. Tesla designed it to further streamline the driving experience. But could this unique shifter confuse drivers who think the car is in park when it’s actually in gear?

Tesla’s new touchscreen shifter

Tesla has a new and arguably more complex shifting mechanism for the 2021 Model S and Model X. The updated models offer additional shifting controls via the center screen. Drivers can drag the car icon around the screen to put the car in drive, reverse, neutral, or park.

At first glance, this enhancement looks simple and almost elegant. And screen-managed functions are customary for Tesla EVs. But the feature raises safety concerns.

The problem with Tesla’s screen shifter

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MotorTrend is one of many critics sounding the alarm regarding Tesla’s new screen shifter. The MT team points out a few problems, like whether a valet parking attendant would know to look at the screen to put the car in gear. And if the screen failed or experienced a problem, the Tesla EV owner could be left stranded, unable to engage the engine. And how complicated would it be to try to execute a multi-point turn while wearing gloves?

The larger problem is a more dangerous one. MotorTrend predicts Tesla touchscreens will inevitably fail. And when they do, they’ll leave drivers in compromising predicaments. Past experience with other automakers’ shifter alterations has shown a higher risk of rollover accidents. For instance, Range Rover problems occurred when drivers using a new dial shifter believed their SUVs were parked when they weren’t. In some cases, after drivers exited, their vehicles rolled over them or pinned them, causing serious or even fatal injuries.

Other automakers that have tried different gear shifters

Automakers over the years have tried to improve shifting mechanisms without success. Remember when some tried to complicate things by changing the “D” for “drive” to “F” for “forward”? Some models put reverse at the front and drive toward the back, getting everyone confused. How many garage doors did consumers blast through on accident, we wonder?

BMW tried switching things up in 2002 with its 7 Series, MotorTrend reports. But even then, critics cited overcomplicated engineering. The 2016 Honda Pilot was another model with an array of buttons and toggles replacing the traditional shifter. Electric levers, some with push, others with pull requirements, proved to be dangerously distracting for drivers.

Then there’s the notorious Jeep Cherokee shifter blamed for actor Anton Yelchin’s death, widely reported in outlets such as The New York Times.

Unique shifters have proven tragic

A few years ago, FCA recalled more than 800,000 vehicles, including 2014 and 2015 Grand Cherokee models, Automotive News reported. The vehicles had a “monostable” shifter that allowed the gear shifter to sit in the center of three positions. When the driver pushed it forward, it would engage in drive. Yelchin may have believed his Jeep was in park when, in fact, it wasn’t. Consequently, the SUV rolled back and pinned the young Star Wars actor, resulting in his death.

Notably, Tesla’s EV models with touchscreen gear selectors don’t violate any federal regulations. The NHTSA officially confirmed the Tesla tech, Teslarati reports. But it’s important to recognize past shifter design mistakes and remain vigilant when using any new technology.