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Car Gear fades, As Tech Takes Over



Gone are the days when the gear knob was once a vital part of nearly every car like the steering wheel and the horn.

Automatic transmission and not manual is the preferred option for many drivers these days. With all-electric cars coming on stream even the stick shifts are now disappearing.

“The gear shift is dying out,” says Alistar Whelan, who is in charge of interior design at Jaguar.

The number of cars fitted with automatics is growing steadily and electric motors with single-speed transmission make the conventional gearbox redundant.

In an electric motor, power is applied from the bottom all the way up to the top of an electric motor’s revolution range so there is no need for a gearbox.

Internal combustion engines have a more narrow operating range and need more gears in order to produce power efficiently. Naturally it was not always like that. In the early days of the automobile, changing gears called for a degree of strength and manual dexterity.

The gear shift on a 1902 Mercedes Simplex for instance was a fearsome metal lever in a quadrant located on the outside of the passenger cabin.

Once gearboxes became smaller and more sophisticated the gear stick quickly moved inside the car where it has remained for well over 100 years.

According to Luca Borgogno, who heads design at Pininfarina in Italy, there is a psychological aspect to gear shifting which will also vanish when technology renders it obsolete.

Just holding the steering wheel and gripping the gear knob gives the driver a feeling of being in control of the car – or at least the engine. A hand on the gear knob is also a cool pose that suggests mastery, says the Italian.

It used to be important for a driver to know which gear he is in – especially when accelerating to overtake another vehicle. With an automatic you can see at a glance whether you are in Park, Reverse, Neutral or Drive and that is all that matters.

The gear shift has been evolving in recent years and many carmakers go in for a downsized and discreet function. Jaguar and Land Rover have replaced the gear stick with a rotary control on the transmission tunnel.

The shifter on upmarket Mercedes-Benz models is no larger than the turn indicator switch and affixed to the steering wheel. Electric cars need only a “D” for drive, “R” for reverse and a “P” for parking, says Jaguar man Whelan.

Buttons like these can be installed almost anywhere on the fascia which makes space for practical features like more cupholders, says Whelan with a nod to the new I-Pace. Jaguar’s electric SUV has just three buttons where the gear stick used to be and an inductive charging cradle for mobile phones.

Many car designers do not want to see the gear stick vanish completely and some contemporary offerings can be regarded as the last fling of an outmoded control mechanism.

But while sporty cars will continue to have paddle shifters on the steering wheel linked to an automatic or manual box, some gear knobs are literally shifting upmarket, like the one adorned with exquisite Swarovski Crystals in BMW’s upcoming X7 premium SUV.