For 2018 Odyssey, a shift in shifters

Shift-by-wire tech means more buttons popping up

A column of four buttons in the center stack replaces the gearshift in the 2018 Odyssey.

WAIKALOA, Hawaii — Loyal Honda Odyssey customers upgrading to the 2018 model will discover something missing from the center stack: the gearshift knob.

In its place is a column of four buttons, a configuation that has been spreading across Honda's lineup.

Chad Harrison, chief engineer for the fifth-generation Odyssey, said Honda's new nine- and 10-speed automatic transmissions require shift-by-wire technology, where transmission modes are controlled electronically, without a mechanical connection to the shifter. Other automakers are moving to shift-by-wire as well, and settling on varying space-saving shifter designs to accommodate it, including some that use a mix of buttons and joysticklike components and others that try to mimic the look and feel of a traditional shifter.

"Yes, you can simulate a traditional gearshift in that situation as some other makers have," Harrison told Automotive News this month at a media introduction for the 2018 Odyssey here. But Honda engineers said such setups can make it harder to set a vehicle in park unless the switches are carefully programmed to go through a certain sequence of gears first.

"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," said Jay Joseph, American Honda's assistant vice president for product planning. "If the shifter fails, you're stranded."

Honda's buttons are arranged vertically in the normal PRND sequence, but the buttons aren't alike: a small rectangular push-in button for park and neutral, a pull-down button for reverse, and a large, squarish button for drive.

"We intentionally made the reverse operation different than the other operations for two reasons," Harrison said. "One, you wouldn't want to accidentally hit a button, think you're in drive and back up. The other thing is we wanted to make it blind-touch operable."

The button set "does require some adaptation," said Joseph, but it's "a very quick adaptation period," and drivers in Honda's tests didn't have much trouble switching back to a conventional shifter.

Joseph said the Honda setup provided the right balance of intuitiveness and low error rate. But he acknowledged that there's still no consensus in the industry over the best shifter form for shift-by-wire systems. Lincoln, for instance, uses a column of five nearly identical buttons; Fiat Chrysler and Jaguar Land Rover use rotary dials. General Motors' 2018 GMC Terrain has push-in and pull-down buttons arranged horizontally.

"I think over time we'll begin to see standardization," Joseph said. "We're not seeing it yet because I don't think anybody is convinced that they've seen the best solution yet."

You can reach Krishnan M. Anantharaman at krishnan@crain.com

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