Here’s your official disclaimer for this article: what follows is a whole bunch of opinion based on a bit of experience behind the wheel of hundreds of different vehicles new and old. Some of my more memorable rides include 600bhp+ prototype muscle cars, highly-strung Japanese pocket rockets, a hearse, an ambulance, and an incident with a 2010 Taurus getting slightly airborne at Ford’s Dearborn proving grounds. Point being, despite being a non-traditional automotive journalist, I’ve driven lots of cars from just about every genre you can imagine.
Stepping beyond experience, however, is something I like to call common sense. And to mix that with a little science I’m reminded of Occam’s Razor - a problem-solving principle which basically says the best solution is the simple one. I had a personal run-in with this concept a couple years ago when, in a fit of engineering madness I attempted to design a brilliantly complex cookware rack in my kitchen. I’d finished three pages of schematics before I realised my wife had already set a simple wire shelf with some S-hooks between the upper cabinets. Problem solved, quite eloquently I might add, in about 30 seconds.
A few months later I had another run-in with Occam’s Razor, this time behind the wheel of a 2014 Dodge Charger with - you guessed it - the infamous FCA electronic shifter for the automatic transmission. This particular car was a V6 all-wheel drive model that was in my care for a weekend and the better part of 200 miles, and it was rubbish. The interior was surprisingly cramped for such a large sedan, visibility was terrible, power was adequate but utterly uninspiring, the handling was flaccid, and then there was that stupid shifter.
First thing’s first - yes the shifter did indicate what gear the car was in, but after three days I still wasn’t used to glancing at those reference points to triple-check whether P, N, R or D/S was illuminated. And I absolutely needed to triple-check, because numerous times I found myself in neutral instead of drive, and worse yet, reverse instead of park. That’s because the movement of the shifter is very subtle and quite fussy. Simply bumping it forward or backward didn’t always affect a gear change despite feeling it bump against the stops.
For me, decades of driving automatics with fixed positions for the shifter would not be undone by a weekend of this glorified toggle switch gear selector. Perhaps it would’ve become second nature with time, but since this crackpot design has been linked to well over 200 accidents, 68 injuries and possibly the death of a young Hollywood movie star, it’s clearly not second nature to a whole bunch of people with presumably much more seat time than me.
And now, Fiat Chrysler’s fix is a software patch that takes three and a half hours to install and is designed to automatically engage park when the door is opened. Except it still isn’t available on all models using this shifter, so those people will make do with enhancements to “the warnings and shift strategy.” And for people like my brother who loads vehicles onto car haulers with the driver door open slightly to ensure it’s straight on the ramps, I suspect their jobs will be a bit tougher. Still, better than having your skull smashed when it rolls backward on you.
Obviously this whole mess could’ve been avoided if FCA hadn’t tried to solve a problem that didn’t exist in the first place. I’m not anti-technology, but I am legitimately concerned about the increasing technical interfaces manufacturers are developing to control basic vehicle systems. BMW’s iDrive has long been a source of frustration for many for its complicated functionality, and Ford’s Sync system isn’t too popular either.
I’m not going to get into a deep analysis of such systems here, but the fact that so many people consider them a hindrance should hopefully be a wake-up call to manufacturers. And by wake-up call, I mean a gigantically fat kick in the plums to remind them that cars are forms of transportation first and foremost, not mobile internet hubs, movie theatres, or 24th century interstellar shuttles. If you want to deck out your models with a bunch of tech, fine. But at least leave the basic controls, you know, basic. I figured that was common sense. Am I wrong?
Cars will continue to evolve, like it or not. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but for crying out loud, let’s keep some perspective here. Whether or not the tragic death of Anton Yelchin does turn out to be the result of FCA’s ill-conceived electronic shifter, I sincerely hope auto manufacturers learn a very important lesson here: clever isn’t always better.