Tesla Model S and Model X will shift themselves — by 'guessing'

We have some concerns

Tesla Model X Plaid
Tesla Model X Plaid
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Car companies get more creative by the day with their gear shifter designs. Many of them are annoying. Some were flat-out dangerous. None, however, have shocked as much as Tesla’s just-announced method for shifting.

When queried on Twitter about how shifting works in the updated Tesla Model S and Model X, Elon Musk said that the “car guesses drive direction based on what obstacles it sees, context & nav map.”

He concludes with: “You can override on touchscreen.” We’ll take that to mean that there’s a set of controls that will pop up on the 17-inch central touchscreen (not pictured in any official photos yet), but let’s set that part of it aside for a second.

Tesla seems to have completely eliminated the physical gear stalk with this updated Model S and Model X. Previously, both cars used shifter stalks from Mercedes-Benz, which extended from the right side of the column for gear selection. It required you to move it up or down to shift between Drive and Reverse, then push a button on the end of the stalk to place it in Park. Musk believes that the car is now capable of guessing which one of those you want based on context.

Considering all the information that the car is capable of taking in, this system of guessing could work just fine in many cases. It would require an extremely effective method of informing the driver which gear the car has chosen, but it could very likely choose the right gear in the majority of situations. However, it could also choose wrong. Never mind the ability to override the car’s "guessing," this possibility sounds like a safety issue that deserves exploration.

Updated Tesla Model S
Updated Tesla Model S
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You might be wondering about the legality of this move. We were, too. However, a look at federal regulations about gear shifters didn’t turn up any specific code or rule that would bar Tesla from selling cars with such a shifter design. Frankly, the idea of a transmission guessing what gear it should be in is far-fetched enough that regulators may have never even considered taking it into account.

There’s nothing within the rules that suggests putting the shift controls into a touchscreen is illegal, either. As long as the shift positions are identified and shown when the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards says they should be, Tesla seems to be in the clear. But just because something is legal or appears to be legal, doesn’t make it a great idea.

Most shifters are electric at this stage in the game, but they’re still operated with buttons, knobs or levers that have to be pushed, turned or pulled. Tapping on a touchscreen for Drive, Reverse and Park is one step further than every other manufacturer in the world has gone. There’s the question of safety — did you really put it into Park? Or did the touchscreen not pick up your finger press? The long-term reliability of Tesla’s touchscreens is also worth noting. Will the screen work without any malfunctions throughout the vehicle’s entire lifetime? Now that it holds the key to the vehicle’s most vital controls, it has to, and the company’s record isn't exactly flawless in this area.

That’s not to say other shifter designs aren’t cause for concern, too. Jaguar Land Rover’s retracting dial is one of the more worrying from a traditional automaker. Will it still rise and fall as it should 20 years from now? Who knows.

Tesla’s "guessing" shifter algorithm brings many open questions, too. Will it work correctly and consistently? Will it show the selected gear clearly enough that people won't be caught off guard by a wrong prediction? That's not to say it can't work. It might need to learn your routine before it gets good at predicting what gear to be in, but given how capable Autopilot is these days, we’re guessing it’s going to be pretty good at observing its surroundings. Using it will be the only way to find out. Let us know your thoughts on the new “shifter” design in the comments below.

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