Time to Standardize Automotive Controls, And Also To Make Them Different

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

My most devoted readers (Hi, Mom!) know that I’ve used the (Web) pages of Road&Track a few times in the past couple of years to argue for standardizing automotive control location and operation. The general response to my clarion call for action has been a rousing middle finger from the reader, accompanied by an unambiguous suggestion that I use a standardized automatic-transmission shift lever to go fuck myself sideways. What can I say? They were even meaner to John the Baptist, you know.

Last week, some fellow from Hollywood (might have) managed to let his own Grand Cherokee crush him to death. And now, to quote Heath Ledger, everybody loses their minds. There’s a class action lawsuit. The Monostable shifter is being maligned from all quarters, often by the same people who said that the Chrysler rotary PRNDL control was also a problem.

In my previous articles, I predicted that the government, or the courts, would set the automakers’ houses in order if they couldn’t do it themselves. Perhaps that will happen now. I hope not. In the meantime, however, let’s take a brief look at the arguments from control standardization, and the arguments for deviating from those standards sensibly.

In the era of everything-by-wire, there is no compelling reason why manufacturers cannot agree on, and implement, a common standard for the behavior of major controls. We already have federal standards for pedal placement, speedometer legibility, and other major interfaces between human and machine. It’s difficult to argue that the brake pedal always needs to be on the left without also accepting that pressing “up” on a wiper control stalk should always turn on the wipers.

A driver should be able to get in a car and know that the basic safety-related functions of the vehicle, from shifter operation to the headlight switch, can be operated in a predictable and well-known fashion. The Monostable shifter in Bimmers and Chryslers? It’s stupid. Beyond stupid. It offers no advantage over a conventional floor shift whatsoever. This idea that the user should have to retain state in his head doesn’t even hold true with motorcycles today, which is why almost all of them have a gear position display. You shouldn’t have to remember whether you’re in P, R, N, D or L. You should be able to look at the shifter and see. Better yet would be if you could figure it out without looking, the way you can reach down and realize whether or not your handbrake is on. (“Flyaway” handles excepted, of course, and with good reason: they are also stupid.)

I’ve driven everything from a column-shift ’50s-era Benz to a paddle-and-button McLaren World Challenge racer and I still can’t figure out exactly how to operate the Monostable shifters. I keep shifting past what I want. But even if you assume that I’m basically yelling at a cloud here, that doesn’t give interface designers carte blanche to make basic controls confusing and/or deceptive.

Some of the more adventurous automakers are even screwing, ever so disingenuously, with the PRNDL order. I drove the new Audi R8 last week and realized that you had to press a button to get “P”. What’s the point of that, particularly when the “P” button is located somewhere that is covered by your hand in normal operation?

There should be an industry standard that covers at least the following:

  • Automatic transmission shift selection and behavior
  • Wipers and headlight wash
  • Headlight operation, flash to pass
  • Activation of the horn
  • Volume for the in-car entertainment — because there are times when noise is a dangerous distraction and you want to be able to immediately discern how to turn it down, or off.

It’s easy to understand why this stuff never got standardized in 1975; when all of it was activated mechanically, there was a lot of sunk cost involved in items like the traditional GM headlight switch or the the “maze” Mercedes-Benz shifter. Nowadays, it’s all supplier-built junk that connects to the CAN. It’s no more expensive to do it one way than another. So let’s do it right, before Ralph Nader makes everything safety-orange and foam-padded via the courts or Mrs. Clinton’s incipient kakistocracy.

Once there’s an agreed-upon standard, we can come up with a protocol for deviating from it. One example would be the left-hand “key” that turns off a modern Porsche. Unless you’re well-acquainted with the location of that switch, you will have a hell of a time remembering how to shut down a Panamera in a hurry, particularly if it’s your first Porsche. But that doesn’t mean that a left-hand ignition should be illegal. All that has to happen is for the driver to be deliberately and purposefully educated on the operation of a nonstandard car when he gets in it for the first time. Put a card in the visor, like you do with airplanes. Then have the dashboard flash a reminder at him to read the card before he drives the car. Simple as that.

Dividing vehicles into complaint/standard and non-compliant/unusual helps the owners and drivers of both. The operators of standardized cars can rest in the knowledge that everything’s where it should be. The operators of nonstandard vehicles will know that they have to look at the car and make a conscious effort to internalize the vehicle’s peculiarities, the same way I do nowadays whenever I switch from my 911 (which has Reverse up and to the left of first gear) to my Accord (which has reverse down and to the right of sixth gear).

Will a standardization like this save lives? Possibly. Not more than a few; I don’t think there are a lot of Monostable Cherokees out there crushing people to death. What it would do is make the operation of modern automobiles more sensible for everybody. It would also shut down the ambulance chasers, at least on this point. Best of all, it would result in the death of the Monostable shifter. Unless that’s the standard, in which case I’ll just have to get used to it, sooner or later.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Pete Zaitcev Pete Zaitcev on Jun 28, 2016

    I don't know what "flash to pass" is, but it really sounds like the worst idea every to leave Jack's mind and land on his keyboard. It may involve a first-rate idiocy like flashing your high beams for no reason.

    • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Jun 29, 2016

      It's common on the Autobahn. Also on Circuit de la Sarthe.

  • Beelzebubba Beelzebubba on Jun 28, 2016

    As someone who travels for work and rents at least 30-40 cars per year, I wholeheartedly agree with standardization! It is infuriating trying to drive a rental vehicle that has no Owner's Manual (they remove them) and the controls are neither intuitive nor logical. I've dealt with the Jeep Grand Cherokee's ridiculous shifter several times in my travels. I found it very irritating from the first time I saw and used it. But last August (2015) in L.A., it caused me to get in a dangerous situation that could have caused an accident. My rental was a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4WD. It was actually a pleasure trip (to visit my cousin) rather than work, so I had the rental for a full week. My frustration started as a I merged frantically onto "the 405" and inadvertently engaged the manual/paddle shifters. I drove for at least 10 miles shifting up and down through the gears manually depending on highway speed (luckily I arrived around midnight, so traffic was light). I finally figured out that I could move the shifter into Neutral and back into Drive and it would cancel the 'manual' function. But the scary situation was a few days later, when I was making a U-turn on a busy street with 3-lanes of traffic in each direction. I thought I could make the U-turn quickly and get up to speed with traffic very quickly. But the turning radius of the JGC was too large and I didn't clear the curb and needed to back up slightly to finish turning around. I struggled with trying to get into R from D with that stupid shifter, but after a few seconds, I decided the safest option was to just continue forward OVER the curb and landscaping that was blocking me from making my full u-turn. It was 4WD (and rented) so I felt I made the right choice.

  • Mike Beranek I wouldn't want to own this car. But I sure would love to borrow it.
  • CFS I can’t believe these comments aren’t 100% in favor of CarPlay/Android Auto. They don’t add much for music and other audio that you don’t get with just a Bluetooth connection, but they make navigation so so much better. Why is it better? Because inputting the destination address is so much easier. And I don’t need to think about updating my car’s maps. Plus, I can switch between Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps, or whatever else seems best suited for my trip. Hands-free calling features are OK, but not such a big deal for me.
  • TheEndlessEnigma I've owned a VW in the past and learned my lesson. Any kind of repair was absurdly expensive which I understand is typical of VW nowadays.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Interesting how Stellantis (and can we take a moment to acknowledge how piss-poor a company name this is - it invokes....what....MBA marketeers failing at their job) is pursuing cuts to reduce costs instead of, oh I don't know, designing-building-marketing vehicles people *WANT* to buy? What has Stella done with what was Chrysler? Suck off the cash flow generated by Chrysler brands, essentially kill the Chrysler brand by cancelling successful models, eliminate any market advantage Dodge had by killing successful models (G Caravan was the #1 minivan until it was killed, Charger & Challenger *were* profitable, etc,) and progressively and continually neuter Jeep all this while ignoring component and build quality. What's done in return? Push Fiat as the new and exciting brand then watch as it fails in North America (did you know ONLY 603 Fiats were sold in the US in 2023). All new Stellantis releases in North America are Euro designs......that then fail in North America because they are not design for our market. The Stellanis solution? Fire Fred, Hank, and Jim and replace them with Apu, Jose and Bernardo. Yup, that will work.
  • 3-On-The-Tree To say your people are total monsters is an unfair statement. You can judge the Japanese government but to say the citizens are culpable or responsible is wrong. That’s like saying every Caucasian person in the U.S is responsible for slavery or the civil rights era of violence and discrimination against African Americans and are benefiting from it. That’s 79 years ago, the average Japanese citizen born during WWII has nothing to do with what happened. Even my Japanese grandmother who was living in Yokohama whose home was firebombed was just trying to survive with 3 kids and a husband fighting in the war. Just like every war the citizens suffer, I saw it in Iraq. You can’t judge the people from the misdeeds of their government, my mom was born after the war, you really think she is responsible for what happened?