I remember the first time I saw the rotary shifter pop up from the console of a Jaguar XF sedan. “It’s kinda cool, but it’s going to break,” I thought. And a quick Internet search reveals those ideas weren’t wrong. But my second thought was that it was a gimmick that didn’t really offer any sort of real-world improvement. I still feel the same way, and I don’t mean to pick Jaguar specifically. In fact, I’d say the rotary shift knob wasn’t the first example of an automaker that didn’t need some redesign.
While Chrysler was not the only automaker to produce push-button transmission controls, the brand famously introduced such a system in the 1950s before abandoning the next decade. Jaguar and Land Rover such as Chrysler have worked on rotary knob designs recently, some of which have been investigated by owners after reports that their cars rolled over because they were not properly parked. Today, there are many different push-button designs, with and without buttons and levers, and, in one case, even allowing cars to be parked front and back without driver intervention. is designed for.
Several reasons have been cited for these unique shifters. Freezing up space (for cupholders, phone holders, cans, and cubbies) is a common practice, and some designers I’ve spoken with find their creations easier to use than anyone else’s. Some are actually better than others, but I’d argue that the shifter is already perfected with the simple PRNDL lever we’re all already familiar with. No one gets into a car and has to stop and think about how to use the traditional shift lever. It is also clear to the driver which gear the vehicle is in as the lever actually moves and points to the current setting. The same can’t be said of many of the button-, knob- and dial-based designs I’ve used.
This type of design is simply not necessary for the design. At best, it can be confusing. At the very least, it can be fatal.
Shifters are far from the only interfaces that have been unnecessarily redesigned. Climate control, radio tuner and volume control, even the steering wheel (some of which aren’t even the size of the wheels).
I recently spent a week driving a brand new Toyota Venza. A solid part of the controls the driver interacts with are touch-sensitive virtual nubs, rather than traditional buttons or switches. While flat surfaces devoid of bumps and protrusions look futuristic, they aren’t as easy to use as more traditional button-laden surfaces. In many cases, I found myself driving down the road to make sure my fat fingers zeroed in on the right bit of shiny black plastic to change the radio station or dial in a new temperature. The actual buttons can be positioned by feel. Virtual buttons can’t.
An argument could be made that the touchscreen is a significant exception to the virtual-button rule. But these, too, are rife with infuriating design choices. Fortunately, automakers these days are putting screens closer to the driver and giving up their old habit of hiding them inside the dash. But the more advanced a car is, the more software user experience developers seem inclined to bury options deep in mysterious menu structures. Some automakers, especially those that run Stelantis’ Uconnect software, allow for some level of customization and simpler screens of icons, and I feel like this may be one of the reasons why Ram and Dodge have recently launched Scored so high in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study.
Simply put, I believe that the best test of interior design is to put real people who weren’t part of the design process behind the wheel of a prototype and ask them to perform tasks that are important to them while driving. Should be simple. Set some kind of baseline, perhaps, and simplify the controls until the most frequently used tasks within that benchmark can be accomplished. I bet a lot of recent decisions will be reversed in favor of the time-tested and well-thought-out designs of the past.