Tesla already made headlines for the yoke-style steering wheel that might be offered on the refreshed Model S and Model X. But it seems the wheel is only the start of the company's efforts to reinvent tried-and-true vehicle controls. The Tesla Owners Silicon Valley Twitter account shared a video clip showing apparent touchscreen shifter controls for the electric cars.
It's a brief clip, and it doesn't show any actual driving. The shifter controls are indicated by a little line drawing of a car on the side of the screen closest to the driver. Touching it highlights fore and aft arrows, presumably indicating drive and reverse, and dragging the car in either direction seems to be the way to select your gear. It doesn't explicitly show a neutral or park position, but it might be possible to activate those selections by another movement, possibly tapping the car symbol.
While touch controls have become far more common in cars, and multiple manufacturers have transitioned to pushbutton shifters, none have gone so far as to have the transmission controlled via touchscreen controls. As such, you may be wondering if this is even legal. After taking a look at the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards code, there doesn't appear to be anything illegal about this design. There are no rules about having physical controls for the shifter, and the only explicit rules about the layout of gears are that neutral needs to be between drive and reverse, and the others are for specific types of levers. The transmission selection must also be clearly displayed whenever the vehicle's motor is capable of moving the vehicle (i.e. not when it's shut off), which it appears this system can do.
As for why Tesla might want to use this touchscreen design, we can think of a couple of reasons. For one, Tesla owners and fans seem to like gadgets and gizmos that buck traditional car design trends and that feel high-tech. Combining as many functions into one screen seems to fit the bill. Having the controls built into software would also help cut some component costs. That's one less lever and a bit less wiring that has to be developed, tested and manufactured, or worse, sourced from another company.
It may also be secondary to the car basically shifting itself in most circumstances. Elon Musk back in January tweeted that the “car guesses drive direction based on what obstacles it sees, context & nav map.” He also said, “You can override on touchscreen,” so that's apparently what we're seeing here.
With all this said, we're still not sure this is the best idea. The problem is that being able to shift your car is a mission-critical function for driving. If your screen malfunctions either because of the software or the hardware, your car might be stuck, even if the motor and transmission are perfectly fine. You could level a similar criticism to shift-by-wire systems in other cars, but they're running separate to everything going on in the infotainment system. So if your infotainment system goes out in those cars, you can still operate your shifter. It's maybe not a hugely dangerous issue, but could be mighty inconvenient.