WASHINGTON - You soon may be selecting gears with a joystick, keypad or push-buttons.
That's because the federal government has given the green light for alternatives to the traditional PRNDL shift lever.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after a year of study, rethought its plan for new rules to regulate the high-tech alternatives and, in effect, said, 'Never mind.'
Actually, the agency's main point is this: The 1968 rule that reverse and forward gears be separated by neutral is one reason the PRNDL pattern is used on sequential shift levers, but that doesn't make other kinds of gear selectors illegal.
'I think they eloquently backtracked,' said James Patterson, a staff engineer at BMW of North America. 'We commend the agency for going back and looking at the issue hard.'
Patterson confirmed that BMW plans a joysticklike shifter. Its lever would be pushed up for reverse and down for forward. It would return to the center position after a gear selection. Park would be engaged with a separate button.
Patterson said the system would be on an upcoming, redesigned BMW that he would not identify. BMW now has a written NHTSA opinion that the joystick would be legal.
But the issue is far from closed.
NHTSA officials said more rules might be needed if unfamiliar shifting devices cause motorists to engage the wrong gears. It is potentially a serious problem, Patterson agreed.
'If you get it wrong,' he said, 'you're going the wrong way.'