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Cars.com Editors Sound Off on Electronic Gear Selectors

2016 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid

CARS.COM — Acura’s tagline for the 2016 RLX is: “Intuition unleashed by the will of the driver.” But when it comes to the luxury sedan’s electronic gear selector, unleashing the will of the driver is anything but intuitive.

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Cars.com’s editors test drive nearly every new car that hits the market, and we’ve encountered just about every type of gear selector. But among all the conventional console- and steering-column-mounted shift levers, pushbutton transmissions, rotary shift knobs and spring-return levers, some of us found the setup in the 2016 RLX the most frustrating.

Its selector is a smallish, vertically oriented strip on the driver’s side of the center console. It has seven different buttons for different functions — each with its own shape and unique positioning affecting how it is pushed.

Top to bottom, the selector includes:

  •  A narrow, rectangular button for Park
  • An indented, V-shaped button for Reverse that the driver pulls rearward like a trigger
  • Another rectangular button for Neutral
  • A large circular button for Drive
  • A narrow, rectangular, dimpled button for Sport mode
  • A large, square, upward-pull switch for the parking brake
  • A small, thin button for the hill-hold function that keeps the car from rolling when stopped in Drive

With all of those different shapes and functions requiring different actions to activate them, our editors never got comfortable with the electronic gear selector. Every time we wanted to pull out of a parking space forward or in reverse, or put the car in Park, we had to stop for a couple of beats to make sure we were pressing the right button and that the transmission had indeed shifted into the gear we wanted. It was like the Groundhog Day edition of our What Does This Button Do? story series — one that repeats over and over again without an answer.

Beyond wasting our time and getting on our nerves, confounding electronic gear selectors can have serious safety implications, and we’re not the only ones who are annoyed. The Detroit News earlier this month reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expanding its investigation into roughly 856,000 Fiat Chrysler Automobiles vehicles because the electronic gear selector is so confusing that some drivers exit the vehicle with the engine running and the car still in gear. That’s after 120 related crashes, about a fourth of which resulted in injuries. The vehicles involved use a shifter that springs back into a neutral position after drivers select a gear and release the shifter — a setup NHTSA says is counterintuitive and lacks effective tactile feedback.

Our editors had plenty of thoughts on the subject of electronic gear selectors, and which types work better than others.

  • Jennifer Geiger, assistant managing editor, news: “I think the public has spoken when it comes to nontraditional gear selectors: Ford and Lincoln’s setup spurred a recall and people complained about FCA’s unit from a safety and logical usability perspective. In Acura’s case, I find the gear selector awkward and confusing. I’ve used it several times in a few different vehicles and have still not gotten comfortable with the button/tap setup.”
  • Jenni Newman, managing editor: “I find that using an electronic gear shifter requires a lot more of my attention than using a traditional shifter. I often start the car, stare at the gearshift for a full second or two and then shift — and then I check to make sure I’m in Reverse before letting my foot off the brake pedal. I’ve yet to inadvertently shift into the wrong gear, but it’s just not intuitive, especially in a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, though I do like that you press a button to shift their cars into park.”
  • Kelsey Mays, senior consumer affairs editor: “I don’t think any of them are necessarily dangerous. Un-ergonomic, sure. Electronic shifters lose all the tactile pleasure of a mechanical unit. The Germans used to have some of the best: I still remember the satisfying ka-thunk as you pulled an Audi or Mercedes shifter from Park to Drive. It was an old-school way to impart heft and solidity, kind of like what heavy doors meant at one point. Yet most of those automakers have fled to electronic gearshifts. It’s unfortunate. Pressing a button, turning a knob or clicking some electronic stalk through its artificial detents gives me no joy.”
  • Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief, noted that he doesn’t mind rotary shift knobs like those on newer Chryslers, Jaguars, Land Rovers and the latest Ford Fusion, nor column-mounted shifters such as those on full-size GM trucks. But with regard to spring-return levers, he complained: “I can’t recall a single vehicle featuring a T-bar Chrysler eight-speed transmission that drove without making a shifting error, usually trying to go from Reverse to Drive. It was infuriating, and if you tried to do it quickly, like in a parking lot or backing out into a busy street, it invariable screwed up.”
  • Mike Hanley, senior research editor: “Aside from the Chrysler T-handle shifter, which had a real user-interface problem, I think owners will become familiar with their car’s shifter in time. But for me, the easiest of these to use are the Mercedes stalk and Land Rover/Chrysler knob, and the most non-intuitive are the Acura/Lincoln pushbutton systems and the BMW joystick.”
  • Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor: “The best solution: rotary knob. Why? Because you get the clicks in a control that takes up minimal space — definitely less than a shifter. Jaguar, some Dodges and Rams do it. I think at least some Chryslers, too, including the 200. If that’s just too weird for people, manufacturers should suck it up and go with a conventional Park-Reverse-Neutral-Drive shifter, clicks and all, even if it takes up more space.”
 
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