This article appears in the 2018 Auto preview guide.
Automakers are looking for space for your smartphone to reside on the center console. Those cupholders aren’t going anywhere, so slowly, but surely, the gearshift lever we have become accustomed to is getting the boot.
In its place automakers are introducing a hodgepodge of new, more compact gadgets that allow us to put the car into Park, Neutral, Drive, Low and Sport.
The 2018 Lincoln MKC typifies the modern interpretation of the “push-button” style of gear selection. The buttons are arranged in a simple row on the dash next to the infotainment system (well out of the way of your Apple or Droid). The MKC shares a lot with the Ford Escape, but not its gear shifter. The Escape uses a conventional gear shift lever.
General Motors’ new 2018 GMC Terrain crossover has a new button array for its shifting. Like Ford, GM is not being consistent: The 2018 Chevy Equinox is mechanically almost identical to the GMC Terrain, but it keeps the conventional shifter.
Consistency has its merits. Not just for convenience, but also safety. One advantage of the conventional automatic gearshift lever is that when the driver wants to put the vehicle into park, there is a distinct forward motion that is stopped by the gear shifter mechanism when park is engaged. Newer designs don’t offer that feeling, and some customers are having trouble adapting. FCA US, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Fiat, has had the most public difficulties with new shifter designs. In 2016 the company issued a recall after an owner’s death and vehicle roll-aways were blamed for the new-style shifters the company had adopted. The replacement design also gave customers fits.
Push-button gear selection is not new to the automobile, of course. The first patent for a push-button transmission was granted in 1909. The first models appeared in 1913, and pretty much every automaker has offered them off and on since the 1950s.