Image: Prius shifter
Toyota
A shifter for Toyota's Prius hybrid. New technology may be making controlling familiar functions in cars more confusing.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/16/2010 7:20:58 AM ET 2010-02-16T12:20:58
COMMENTARY

Cars are increasingly stuffed with fancy technology that not only makes possible the use of new gadgets from the driver’s seat but also novel ways of controlling familiar old hardware such as the transmission's shifter and the ignition switch.

Unfortunately, much of this advanced technology makes critical functions, such as shifting into neutral or reverse or shutting off the ignition in an emergency, confusing for drivers.

And befuddled drivers equal less safety on the nation's highways, freeways, streets and roads.

The latest research shows that it's hard enough for drivers to decide what to do in emergencies such as unintended acceleration, beyond just slamming on the brakes. Complicated gadgets just make a bad situation worse.

Disorientation may have contributed to the crash of a Lexus ES350 sedan in August that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrolman and three of his family. Patrol Officer Mark Saylor was driving a loaner car that accelerated suddenly and roared through rush-hour traffic in suburban San Diego at 120 mph.

Toyota has blamed the accident on a problem with the accelerator pedal. The Saylor family deaths have become a prime example behind a series of recalls over quality and safety concerns affecting about 8.5 million Toyota vehicles.

But the problem may be deeper than just malfunctioning software or floor mat entrapment of accelerator pedals.

Saylor also was unable to shift the car into neutral or switch off the engine, some of the typical things a driver would do during unintended acceleration, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with their operation.

To switch off the ES350's engine while driving, Saylor would have had to press and hold the "Stop/Start" button for three seconds, an action that is not obvious and could be difficult to accomplish while swerving through traffic at high speeds. And the Lexus features a shifter that follows a slightly twisting path rather than sliding directly fore and aft.

The Lexus shifter is far from the most confusing on the market. That title is up for grabs among Toyota's hybrid models and the latest models from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The Toyotas and BMWs use a console shifter that the driver slides sideways and forward for reverse or over and backward for drive. Mercedes has a device that looks like a turn signal stalk on the right side of the steering column that the driver lifts for reverse or presses downward for drive.

A shifter in a BMW shifter
BMW
A shifter in a BMW

The Saylor accident prompted Consumer Reports to suggest five fixes carmakers could make to improve safety in the event of unintended acceleration. Included among them was the need to simplify turning the car’s engine off and shifting it into neutral in an emergency.

“You shouldn’t have to read the owner's manual to figure out how to use the shifter,” Consumer Reports said.

Until the recent Toyota recalls, critics of emerging alternative control schemes could be dismissed as Luddites who were unwilling to embrace new fashions. But the inability of drivers to stop cars in emergencies shows the importance of simple, familiar controls such as twist-key ignition switches; shifters that slide sequentially through the well-known Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive and Low positions; and radio knobs that adhere to the age-old convention of having a large volume and power knob on the left side of the radio face and a large tuning knob on the right side.

Drivers know from experience what these controls do and where to find them, so they can use them without thinking about it.

Too many automakers are making everyday activities excessively complex. The BMW iDrive had a controller for functions like the radio and air conditioning that was so baffling that it forced drivers to take their eyes off the road.

From the beginning of the automotive age the industry has wrestled with the best way for drivers to control cars.

At the dawn of the industry there were nearly as many schemes for controlling horseless carriages as there were companies building them. Steering could be performed by tiller, crank or steering wheel. Braking was frequently performed by leaning outside the car and tugging on a handle in the manner of braking a horse-drawn wagon.

The Ford Model T, the world's best-selling car for decades, used three floor pedals for shifting gears, a lever on the steering wheel for throttle control and a hand lever for brakes.

Eventually the industry coalesced around better, more intuitive controls. But the rise of the automatic transmission in the 1950s provided new ways for drivers to make mistakes while operating unfamiliar driving technology.

Car makers offered a variety of shifting sequences for sliding shifters. Some even tried push-button shifters. The accidents that resulted from this confusion were described in Ralph Nader’s pioneering book on automotive safety, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

The book outlined the need for automatic transmission shifters to possess a “Park” position which automatically holds the vehicle in place, and to proceed sequentially to Reverse, Neutral, Drive and Low, in the familiar “PRNDL” pattern carmakers have followed since it was required by the Department of Transportation in the 1960s.

Having Neutral between Drive and Reverse and mandating a consistent order of the gears provides a critical fail-safe that helps prevent people from accidentally accelerating in the opposite direction they expected.

Image: Camaro shifter
GM  /  Wieck
The shifter for a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro: simple and familiar.

Today it seems those lessons have been forgotten. Electronic shifters permit carmakers to employ stalk-like turn signal controllers or nubby handles protruding from the console which somehow meet the letter of the law but not the spirit.

Carmakers say they have preserved simplicity of operation in their new configurations. "With our shifters, either mechanical or electronic, it is simply a matter of a push forward of the shifter to select neutral," said BMW spokesman Tom Plucinsky.

But it can still be unnecessarily complicated to quickly locate reverse gear to back away from trouble, for example, in any of the shifters used by some models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.

The problem extends to the matter of switching on and off the car’s ignition with the new keyless start systems. Some cars do both with a single brief touch of a button.

In a Toyota, that button might only switch on the power but not start the car unless the driver holds the button down longer. By failing to hold it long enough to start the car and then trying again, you might switch the car off rather than starting it on the second try.

“We have a real problem with the Start/Stop button ignition,” concluded Jeff Bartlett, deputy online editor for autos at Consumer Reports.

This doesn’t mean a prohibition on the convenience of keyless starting. It just means that a more thoughtful execution is required.

The keyless start system on the Cadillac CTS is a model of how it could be done using a more familiar layout. That car uses a faux key switch in the conventional steering lock position that switches the car on and off when the driver carries the wireless key.

Using a familiar interface for switching the car on and off, with a switch that positively moves from the “off” position to “on” and back again means that when the driver wants to turn the Cadillac off, it is a simple and familiar action with clear feedback indicating that the action has been completed.

By creating new systems that are more confusing than existing systems and which diverge from industry conventions, emergency fail-safe modes we took for granted have been lost.

For automotive controls, simplicity should be the rule.

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