When Tesla announced a redesigned Model S sedan and Model X SUV earlier this year, one of the biggest changes to how those cars work was quite literally hard to see: Tesla decided to remove the gear-selector stalk from the steering wheel and is going to try to automate shifting between park, reverse, neutral, and drive (PRND). The company said there would be an option on the touchscreen as a backup, but it wasn’t until today that we had a sense of exactly what that looks like.
Instead of touchscreen “buttons” for each drive mode, drivers will have to tap-and-drag on a small car icon on the top-left corner of the new horizontal touchscreen. (In fact, that car icon was visible in the photos Tesla released for the refreshed Model S and Model X, though it wasn’t clear what it was for.) Drag up to put the car into drive, drag down to put the car in reverse:
Neutral is buried in a deeper menu, though it’s still unclear how you put the car into park. Perhaps since Teslas can operate without the slow “creep” of internal combustion cars (though there is an option to turn that on), you will be able to just stop the car with your brake pedal and it will stand still, maybe even switch into park when you get out.
Now, according to Elon Musk, this is all just a backup to the car automatically switching gears for you. “Car guesses drive direction based on what obstacles it sees, context & nav map,” Musk tweeted back in January. “After you drive without using a PRND stalk/stick for a few days, it gets very annoying to go back & use a shifter! You can override on touchscreen.”
In an internal document obtained by Electrek after the announcement, Tesla said a vehicle would “automatically shift to Reverse once the driver presses the brake pedal” if the car noticed it was facing a garage wall, for example.
Musk was asked about this change when he was on Joe Rogan’s podcast in February, and he said he’d been testing the feature and really enjoyed it:
Musk: If you just get in, when you press the brake pedal and then press the accelerator, it will figure whether you want to go backwards or forwards based on...
Rogan: That’s crazy. How’s that possible?
Musk: Well, it just looks and sees: is there an obstacle in front? Okay, you probably don’t want to whack it, so you probably want to go backwards.
Rogan: Right, but what if you want to go backwards and there’s nothing in front of you?
Musk: Yeah, what if it’s ambiguous?
Musk: So it would default to the inverse of whatever you started, and then you can just swipe on the screen and change direction.
Rogan: But isn’t it easier to just hit like that way to go to reverse, lift up?
Musk: Yeah, you’ll see, you almost never...
Rogan: You do it? So this is something you’ve driven and it’s intuitive?
Musk: Yeah, once you get rid of the stalk and have the car figure it out, it’s annoying to have a stalk after that.
Musk loves to push boundaries with his companies, and this decision definitely represents a big change in what is a basic function for a car. But Tesla is far from the first automaker to tinker with gear selectors. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are more explicit about the order in which PRND are displayed than how a driver selects them, so car companies have tried everything from gear selector buttons to knobs to weird levers that wind up causing dangerous mode confusion.