From the September 2020 issue of Car and Driver.
My neighbors must think I’m a drug dealer, a successful but stupid one. The other day, I had a Lamborghini Huracán, a Porsche 911, and an Aston Martin Vantage in my driveway, and each has a different transmission-control layout. So the first time I moved the Huracán, it took me forever to realize you shift into drive by pulling the paddle shifter. I just sat there revving it in neutral like a jerk. Porsche’s reverse takes a little flick forward of the shift nubbin. The Aston uses push buttons. There haven’t been this many ways to set up an automotive cockpit since the Stutz Bearcat placed the throttle between the brake and clutch pedals and Fords controlled acceleration with one lever and the spark advance with a different lever. There are days where I throw my hands in the air and cry out to the gods of interior design: “Why? Why did you put that there? Isn’t there a law or something about this stuff?”
As it turns out, not really. Oh, sure, there are laws about building cars, but professor Paul Green of the Driver Interface Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute tells me that few rules dictate the control interface. “There’s a section [in NHTSA’s driver distraction guidelines] that covers controls and displays, but it specifies very, very little,” he says. “There’s not a lot of consistency, whether something’s on a button, on the instrument panel, on a stalk, on the left or the right side, in the steering wheel, in a touchscreen. That’s open. But violating government guidelines is usually a bad idea, so everyone follows them.” It’s tradition, not legislation, that has made car interiors so similar for so long.
So why all the different shifters and buttons all of a sudden? Changing needs, says Ivo van Hulten, director of interior design for Porsche. “Look at the shifter,” he says. “The technology changed over time [from manual to automatic], and the needs of the user have changed [to more demand for infotainment], so the shifter plays a different role than in the past. But for a sports car, a shifter adds character to the interior.” Even though a push button or dial might have worked for the 911’s transmission control, it didn’t match the car’s personality, and a large console shifter would have blocked the touchscreen.
Mitja Borkert, Lamborghini’s head of design, says the cabin must balance new tech and tactile enjoyment: “We are using displays for the navigation system, but it’s absolutely important for me that we do not give up physical buttons.” And if a Lambo’s quirks confound a newbie, Borkert says that’s a feature, not a bug. That paddle shifter to engage drive? “When you own it, you know it,” he says. “It’s part of our Lamborghini universe.”
As the universe expands, EV tech with no gears to change means a car may not need a shifter. That’s what Robert Bollinger, CEO of electric-truck startup Bollinger Motors, says. He thinks we’re in a transitional period, moving away from controls that were defined by the mechanical connection that needed to be made. With electronic controls, switches and levers can become buttons or touchscreen taps. The endgame, says Bollinger, is to make self-driving cars with interiors like living rooms: “I think that a singular screen is one of the steps toward autonomy. You won’t need a lot of controls; you won’t even have a dashboard anymore.” He then assured me that Bollinger vehicles will always have physical controls because touchscreens feel so unsatisfying.
But what of my pride? Do any of these experts ever have trouble figuring out a new car? “Oh yes,” says van Hulten. “When I pick up a rental car, I behave like an explorer, but it can get stressful.” And Borkert? “I travel a lot,” he says. “I do this exercise many times, and I get confused. It shows me the importance of a good interior philosophy.” Even Green finds it challenging: “I’ve been stymied, especially if it’s a rental car. You’re trying to find the controls; where’s the owner’s manual? How long am I going to sit here and read the manual?” Okay, great. Can you guys explain that to my neighbors?
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