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Blame Technology: Awful Shifters Will Continue Until They’re Made Great Again

Shift By Wire shifters - Images: BMW, Toyota, Lincoln, Chrysler, GMC

Center-mounted in a vertical fashion, the shifter in the fifth-generation 2018 Honda Odyssey profiled yesterday by Chris Tonn requires drivers to push a rectangular button for park, pull back an indented button for reverse, push another rectangular button for neutral, or depress a square button for drive.

In the new, second-generation 2017 GMC Terrain, a low-slung horizon of shift buttons mandates pushes of a rectangle for park and a small square for neutral plus a slight pull for reverse or, farther to the right, drive.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the lengthy push-button shift mechanism in newer Lincolns, where buttons for ignition, park, reverse, neutral, drive, and sport are laid out vertically on the driver’s side of the centre stack.

Some automakers are trying out rotary knobs, or shifters with separate park buttons, or monostable shifters that have earned a bad name.

They’re here to stay. Blame technology. Hope for reliability. Don’t expect standardization.

The shift amongst automakers to shift-by-wire technology caused Honda concern about long-term reliability when shift-by-wire is linked to conventional shift formats.

2018 Honda Odyssey shifter - Image: Honda

“You can simulate a traditional gearshift in that situation as some other makers have,” Honda’s chief engineer for the 2018 Odyssey, Chad Harrison, told Automotive News.

But, says Honda product planning vice president Jay Joseph, “We were concerned that the complexity was going to cause problems down the road, maybe not for the first or second owner, but further down the road.”

Honda has made its shifter buttons unique in order for “blind-touch” functionality, unlike the uniform buttons Lincoln has chosen. And because of that blind-touch functionality, Honda decreases the likelihood that you’ll “hit a button, think you’re in drive, and back up,” Harrison says.

Honda product planner Jay Joseph, meanwhile, acknowledges that Honda’s layout requires “adaptation,” but claims the adaptation does not take long. Indeed, of all the issues facing these newfangled shifters, the degree to which unnecessary differentiation and familiarization are voiced as problems relates largely to motoring writers. Those of us who drive a different car each week are only just beginning to acclimate to our new surroundings when we once again begin to engage a new shifter design.

2018 Honda Odyssey one week; 2018 GMC Terrain the next. Throw a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Prius, Ram 1500, Lincoln MKC, and a BMW 3 Series into the mix and the lack of similarities can be jarring.

But this isn’t a problem faced by most actual owners. Owners of the new 2018 Honda Odyssey likely don’t have a seven-car driveway featuring the six other aforementioned vehicles. Theoretically, an owner adapts to the new shift format in a few days and is permanently acclimated.

On the other hand, should it really be necessary for automakers to publish How-To videos on YouTube teaching owners how to put their cars in drive?

Over time, Honda expects to see standardization across the industry.

But why haven’t we seen any standardization yet? Jay Joseph: “Because I don’t think anybody is convinced that they’ve seen the best solution yet.”


Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net and a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Autofocus.ca. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars.

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