Getting in gear gets interesting
Creative new locations and designs emerge for shifters
Real estate is all about location, location, location, and now the same holds true for the automatic transmission shifter.
Automotive interior designers are choosing new locations and styles for the shifter, which for decades has been mainly in the center console.
The 2013 Ram 1500 pickup is the latest vehicle to experiment with shifter design and location. The re-engineered truck, due this fall, will have a four-stop dial -- P-R-N-D -- mounted vertically on the instrument panel to the right of the steering column.
In addition, the 1500's steering wheel will have two buttons to enable the driver to manually shift up and down through the transmission's eight gears.
Ram brand chief Fred Diaz says moving the shifter controls "freed up valuable real estate" in the pickup's center console, where the traditional gated shifter had been in previous model years.
Less noise, too
As electronic shifters replace mechanical shifter linkages, automakers have more freedom on shifter locations, says Andy Yu, vice president of engineering for BorgWarner Transmission Systems.
Moreover, by eliminating mechanical shifter controls, automakers can reduce noise and vibration transmitted into the cabin from the shifter cable, he says.
"With electronic shifters, the possibilities are limitless, including touch screen, customer configurable screens, etc.," Yu says. "That said, a shifter similar to the existing ones will likely be around in the near term due to fail-safe implications and customer familiarity."
Automakers still must comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for gear sequencing and controls and displays in passenger vehicles.
Those standards mandate, for example, the P-R-N-D order in which gears appear on all automatic transmission shifters so drivers can easily find gears when driving different vehicles.
But the freedom to move from the gated shifter in the center console has opened new possibilities, says Joerg Meyer, director of human-machine interface with transmission supplier ZF Friedrichshafen AG.
"New interior styling concepts are possible since [electronic] shifters can be much smaller and can be located at different places," Meyer says.
Jaguar uses a rotary-dial shifter similar to the Ram 1500's that it calls the JaguarDrive Selector. When the vehicle is shut off, the selector retracts into the center console. When the starter button is activated, the selector emerges.
Return of the tree
Some automakers, such as Mercedes-Benz on the S-class sedan, have returned the shifter to the "tree" -- a stalk attached to the steering column. Others, such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Chrysler Group on their minivans, have kept the gated shifter, but mounted it vertically or near vertically on the instrument panel.
Most transmissions remain mechanically connected to the shifter mechanism for Park. But when Park is electrified, Yu said, "it will open up additional possibilities for vehicle interior design."
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