PITTSBURGH -- The 2018 GMC Terrain may elevate General Motors into a design leader for the next generation of automatic transmission shifters.
In recent years, automakers have tried to develop intuitive designs for electronic transmission shifters, or e-shifters, which use electronic controls instead of mechanical components to connect the shifter and transmission to change gears and drive modes.
Automakers have done everything from emulating traditional shifters to using rotary knobs, buttons and levers. Many of the new designs have angered and confused consumers -- most notably a "monostable" design from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that spawned a class-action lawsuit and recall of 1.1 million vehicles.
Benefits of the new electronic systems -- known as shift by wire -- include quicker shifting and liberated space in the cabin, as the bulkier mechanics of a traditional system are not required. But unless done correctly, they can be dangerous or even deadly.
Toggles & buttons
For the redesigned Terrain, GM engineers and designers conducted dozens of customer surveys and focus groups to implement the best of what's on the market into the Terrain's new system, which GM is calling "electronic precision shift."
The system is intuitive, easy to use and less tedious than many push-button and knob shifters. It includes buttons for neutral and park alongside toggle switches for drive and reverse. It's similar to the shifters of vehicles such as the 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan, but where GM really got it right was making the buttons horizontal instead of vertical, and placing them right below the climate controls.
"We've given them more space on the top, more space on the bottom and even a little bit more space in the console," said Michael Stapleton, GMC's director of interior design, during a press event here for the vehicle. "It's really a nice package along the center console."
The placement and spacing of the horizontal controls -- from PRNDL+/- -- makes it so a driver can easily have fingers on the R and D toggles and thumb on the P. The driver can seamlessly switch among the three without having to stare at which mode he is hitting.
I condemned GM for switching to the system when the second-generation compact crossover debuted at the Detroit auto show in January. I've despised so-called piano key shifters and found knob shifters to be intuitive but a bit tedious when parallel parking or backing a trailer.
I never thought I'd say this but the Terrain's system is as convenient as, if not more than, a traditional shifter.
It's also seemingly idiot-proof. If a driver accidentally hits P while driving, a message on the cluster pops up saying, "Conditions not correct for shift." If a driver pulls the R, the same error message pops up and the car shifts into neutral. If a driver pulls P and R simultaneously, a separate message pops up and the car shifts to neutral.
And to prevent rollaway accidents such as one last year that resulted in the death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin, if the driver's seat belt is unbuckled and he opens the door while the vehicle is still in drive, it automatically shifts into park.
Drivers, with a foot on the brake, also can hit the Engine Start/Stop button that turns the vehicle on and off to automatically place the vehicle in park.
GM, according to electronic precision shift systems engineer Orson Wang, conducted 25 surveys and focus groups for the system, including one with 97 percent of those involved saying the Terrain's new shifter was as convenient or more convenient than shifters in their current vehicles.
"It's all about being safe and intuitive," Wang said. "We'll certainly be listening to our customers and see what they say."
The system is standard across the 2018 Terrain's three turbocharged engine offerings (1.5-liter and 2.0-liter gasoline, and 1.6-liter diesel).
GMC officials decline to say whether the new shifter design will expand across the brand or the company. It likely will come down to consumers, including first-generation Terrain buyers, and whether they embrace the shift.