Any individual who has driven multiple cars over the past 25 to 30 years would probably agree that while aesthetics change from vehicle-to-vehicle, certain aspects of the car remain largely standardized. For instance, the gear shifter, ignition, turn signals, and other standard vehicle controls are often presented in a substantially similar fashion across an array of vehicle years, manufacturers, and models. That is, on just about every vehicle produced the gear shift quadrant will follow the familiar Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear (P-R-N-D-L) pattern. However, this standardization was not always present in vehicles sold in the United States. This lack of standardization likely constituted a design defect since it made driver mistakes more likely and resulted in thousands of preventable injuries and deaths. In light of a new recall issued by Ford regarding the design of its Lincoln MKC, it seems that at least some of these problems regarding standardization are creeping back into the auto industry.
Problems with Vehicle Shifters Have Caused Serious Injuries in the Past
The seminal 1965 work by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, identified a number of safety problems and concerns regarding then-contemporary vehicles. One of these concerns was the inconsistent design of the gear shift quadrant. Some auto manufacturers like GM and Studebaker initially used a gear shift quadrant pattern of Park, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear, Reverse (P-N-D-L-R). This shift pattern was contrary to the patterns used by other auto manufacturers and could lead to driver confusion. A driver who was used to low-gear being at the bottom of the shift-quadrant was likely to make a mistake and instead reverse the vehicle.
Chevrolet — chiefly the Corvair — utilized the pattern of Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear (R-N-D-L) with the parking gear being conspicuously absent. Aside from the fact that a driver could shift into the wrong gear due to the missing parking gear, The Corvair also required the driver of the vehicle to park it in neutral and then engage a parking brake to secure the vehicle. For those unfamiliar with the operation of this vehicle, failing to engage the parking brake was a foreseeable risk that could lead to the vehicle rolling away and causing serious injury.
Perhaps proving that all things come full-circle, Chrysler Corporation utilized push-button gear controls in many of its 1950s and 1960s era vehicles that utilized the Torqueflite and Powerflite transmissions. These gear quadrants varied from year-to-year in design. The Torqueflite controls were typically arranged in a horizontal Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear pattern (R-N-D-2-1). The Powerflite controls were arranged very similarly in the same horizontal-oriented Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear pattern but only a single low-gear was selectable. (R-N-D-L). A 1956 Chrysler Plymouth, for example, followed a completely different push-button pattern with the buttons in a quasi-diamond configuration to the left of the vehicle’s speedometer. Neutral was located at the diamond’s apex, reverse was situated at the left-point of the diamond, drive at the right point, and low-gear was located at the diamond’s base.
In short, this vast and extreme proliferation of designs and methods of functionality confused drivers caused mistakes and catastrophic injuries, and lead to the standardization of systems that motorists have enjoyed and benefited from up until recently.
Push Buttons are Back – Is Technological Novelty Blinding Us to the Lessons of the Past?
A recent recall announced by Ford may indicate that the injuries caused driver confusion in the 1950s and 1960s is poised to return in 2015. Ford has announced a recall of the 2015 Lincoln MKC because drivers have reported that they, or their passengers, have shut-off the vehicle in error.
The Lincoln MKC is equipped with a push-button ignition and gear-shift quadrant not entirely dissimilar from the Chrysler Corporation’s push-button controls from the 1950s and 1960s. The MKC’s shift controls have been moved from the drivetrain – the components that deliver power to the wheels located along the center of the vehicle – to the vehicle dash alongside the center display console in the vehicle. The controls are arranged vertically in the descending pattern of Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Sport, and Ignition (P-R-N-D-S-I). While in relation to each other the first four gears appear configured as a driver would expect, the same cannot be said for the location of the sport gear and the ignition. Car owners have reported that drivers attempting to put the vehicle into sport mode have accidentally pressed the ignition button which is similarly shaped and directly below the sport button. Pressing the ignition button while the car is in motion cuts power to the vehicle causing it to halt suddenly as if the driver had stepped on the brake pedal extremely hard.
Ford has stated that it plans to rectify the problem by moving the location of the ignition. The system will now be configured with the ignition at the top of the gear shift quadrant with Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and Sport following (I-P-R-N-D-S). Also of note is that the automaker announced an additional recall for the same vehicle regarding fuel pump problems. These problems can cause the vehicle to fail to start or cause the vehicle to stall while it is being driven.
This Defect Risk Parallels and Exceeds the GM Ignition Switch Defect
While the reason for the defective ignition switches is completely different, like the GM ignition switch defect, this problem can lead to the loss of vehicle power when driving. In either case, having a vehicle suddenly stop, lose control or otherwise behave erratically significantly increases the chance of an accident since the driver may collide with a stationary object in a single-car accident or the erratic behaviors may cause an accident involving multiple vehicles.
However, this risk may surpass the one presented by the GM ignition switch defect as, in that instance, the defect is due to a mechanical failure. Here, the defect is due to the design of the actual system including the placement of the ignition button. Because the gear-shift quadrant controls are directly adjacent to the vehicle’s touchscreen entertainment system, accidental gear shifts are not only possible but very well may be likely. And this accounts only for situations where a split-second decision isn’t necessary. When a person panics, they can make mistakes even with familiar controls – such as stepping on the gas pedal rather than the brakes. When systems are unfamiliar, unintuitive, and complex these problems are only compounded.
In short, it seems that we may, in some ways, have circled back to the problem of “the stylists” who were also identified by Mr. Nader in his work. While our safety and engineering standards are certainly better than they were in the 1960s and earlier, some automakers may be returning to a mindset where ornamentation, bells, whistles and aesthetic design concerns take precedence over thoroughly considered and well-engineered systems. While these features are certainly appealing to potential purchasers in the showroom, new designs and features should only be introduced after meticulous study. Otherwise, we are likely to see a spike in preventable accidents and catastrophic injuries.