Shifting a vehicle in and out of gear may seem like a concept that is simple
enough to grasp – but technological advances have led to what many
refer to as “e-shifters”, which are not as well understood
A traditional automatic transmission shifter makes use of a series of positions
where the shifter will stay, identifying clearly whether it is in Park,
Reverse, Neutral, Drive, or another gear. Many drivers may be so accustomed
to these shifters that they use them without having to look – all
the way forward to the engine is park, one down is reverse, three down
is drive, and so on.
In recent years, auto manufacturers have begun implementing e-shifters,
or monostable shifters, which have only three positions: front, middle,
and back. These shifters are at rest in the middle. If you want to go
in a specific direction, you push the shifter in that direction until
the light appears for the gear you want. Once you let go, the shifter
goes back to the resting position. One cannot determine what gear a vehicle
is in simply by looking at the shifter itself, because it is always in
the same resting position.
While these shifters may seem cutting-edge, they have been perplexing for
consumers. Confusing transmission shifters can easily cause crashes and
injuries when drivers mistakenly put their cars into the wrong gear or
don’t put the cars into park. Chrysler added complicated shifters
to some of their cars starting in the 2012 model year. The company is
now voluntarily recalling those cars to make them safer. The company has
also changed current models to address this problem. With a normal automatic
shifter, the lever stays in place when you put it into gear. You can quickly
tell what gear you’re in, simply by look and feel. But the 2014-2015
Jeep Grand Cherokee, and certain 2012-2014 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Chargers
used a confusing shifter that pops back to center after picking a gear.
You can’t tell what gear is engaged by feel alone and finding park
or reverse reliably is difficult.
Consumer Reports’ testing found this design to be unintuitive –
and lowered the car’s overall score as a result. Crash data shows
the consequences of this bad design. The National Highways Traffic Safety
Administration reports over 100 crashes were caused when the cars rolled
away when owners thought they were in park. Chrysler has said there have
been 41 injuries. The recall is a software fix that will change the electronic
shifter logic to better protect owners who accidentally do not put the
car into park. Chrysler had already changed the shifter design in newer
300s, Chargers, and Grand Cherokees as a result of customer feedback.
But Chrysler isn’t the only car company with confusing shifters.
You also find them in Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz, and Toyota Prius vehicles.
Other companies, like General Motors, are just starting to roll them out
in recent redesigns. Various design safeguards can help reduce the risk.
Shutting off the ignition or opening the driver’s door should make
cars with these types of shifters automatically shift into park. But Mercedes
Benz vehicles do not do this. Instead, shutting off the car puts the car
in neutral instead of park, allowing it to roll until a door is opened.
We hope that other automakers will follow Chrysler’s lead and make
their shifters more intuitive and safer to use. Any instance where improved
automobile safety is obvious should be taken by manufacturers, as motor
vehicles are dangerous enough without additional safety risks.