I know we’ve been covering the refreshed Tesla Model S and the bonkers steering wheel and lack of turn signal stalks and the subsequent laughter, confusion, and moaning a fair amount, but there’s still another significant, um, innovation, we need to discuss. Specifically, the shifter. Or, more accurately, the lack of a shifter and the possible use of a sophisticated process known as (checks notes) guessing. But, you know, computer guessing. Really.
Here, Elon Musk describes the shifter setup himself in this tweet:
When the original poster mentioned “no gear shifter,” Elon followed up with
No more stalks. Car guesses drive direction based on what obstacles it sees, context & nav map. You can override on touchscreen.
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Okay, so let’s unpack this a bit. As far as the car “guessing drive direction based on obstacles it sees,” my guess of the guessing is that with only forward or reverse to choose from, it just selects whichever way is clear.
That part is easy. Now, if both paths of travel are clear, I would guess forward would be heavily weighted as the likely option unless that “context” and GPS data came into play.
For example, if it knows you’re in a parking lot, it’s possible it could understand that you’re in a spot where reversing out would be preferable? And if you’ve already given it a GPS destination, it could certainly use that to know which direction to start driving?
The thing here is that this seems like a hell of a lot of technology to solve a problem that really doesn’t exist. If the system just defaulted to D if it didn’t detect any forward obstacle, that would likely be fine for the vast majority of situations, with no “guessing” really needed.
But the bigger issue is that I just don’t understand who this is actually helping. Sure, Elon said that
“After you drive without using a PRND stalk/stick for a few days, it gets very annoying to go back & use a shifter!” but, come on, is shifting an automatic really annoying? Really?
We’re all drivers here, and since we’re not talking about manual transmissions (only a few EVs I can think of have that) a PRNDL only asks you to shift once from when you start driving until you stop (well, you can pop into L or N if you want while driving, I guess.) Unless you’re in a Fast and Furious movie, I’ve never heard anyone ever complain about how much shifting they have to do in an automatic.
Plus, how annoying will it be to take that extra step to leave the “guessing” mode when you’re trying to do a fast three-point turn in traffic and the AI has no idea what the fudgesicles you’re up to? Or what about parallel parking, or, really, any sort of maneuver that’s absolutely obvious to a human but baffling to an AI, which is a massive, massive set of normal human behavior.
This isn’t a problem that needed solving. The same goes for the “override” of shifting by human choice via the touch screen — while I don’t think the user experience is really that much worse by poking pixel-buttons on a screen as opposed to some of the button-operated shifters found in many modern cars, it just doesn’t strike me as a good idea to make a driving-critical function of the car tied to the whole complex infotainment system.
It’s not like Tesla doesn’t have a history with their “media control units” that drive the touchscreen having failures — there have been several major recurring issues. Why would you want to entangle something as basic as the shifter into a much more complex system in the car? If there are touchscreen issues in software, screen hardware, or any of the many, many electronic components in between, then not only would the car’s center screen be gone, but so would the ability to drive the car.
Again, like in the case of the new steering wheel and the elimination of stalks, this feels like design-led innovation for its own sake that only adds complexity and provides the owner with very little other than a cool design to point to.
I think anyone who’s had to buy a stupid iPhone headphone adapter can relate and agree that perhaps this isn’t the best way to design things.
Innovation is great if the end result is something better than what came before. Is having your car try and guess what direction you may want to go actually improving anyone’s experience when the process needed for you to just directly tell the car is so trivial?
I don’t think so. Also, I feel like there’s much, much bigger AI fish for Elon to get to frying if he ever wants to see Teslas achieve something beyond just basic Level 2 driver-assist systems.
Let shifters and turn-signal stalks exist, Elon, and get your engineers working on failover systems and camera cleaning systems and all that stuff. All this other stuff is bullshit.