GMC Set Aside Three Hours to Show That Its New Electronic Shifter Isn’t Confusing ""

By | July 10, 2017

GMC seems confident its new Electronic Precision Shift (EPS) gear selector is not just another confusing electronic shifter, despite introducing confusion by denoting it with the acronym EPS, which is the typical shorthand for electric power steering. But the truck brand nevertheless set aside almost three hours of time at General Motors’ Milford Proving Ground for auto journalists to have at the button-and-switch system—test it, try to trick it, ask engineers questions about it, whatever. It was perhaps also an attempt to head-off any criticism that the new shifter mechanism, GM’s second electronic shifter design, might draw once it makes its debut in the 2018 GMC Terrain, which arrives at dealerships later this summer.

The good news for GMC, at least from our perspective, is that it’s pretty easy and intuitive to use. Set up as a row of buttons and switches, it may sound, or even look, more complicated than it actually is. But can you blame anyone for being skeptical? Nontraditional shifters have come under fire lately. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ rotary shift knobs are at the center of a federal investigation, and the joystick-like, electronically controlled “monostable” shifters supplied by ZF have been part of recalls for rollaway incidents.

Rick Spina, GMC’s executive chief engineer for crossovers, noted that whereas some automakers’ newer automatic transmission electronic shifters entail just two movements—you put your foot on the brake and then turn a dial, for example—this setup was designed to include three motions to get the vehicle to move: You put your foot on the brake, jab your finger into a pocket behind the reverse or drive switches, and then pull.

Found at the bottom of the Terrain’s center stack, the shift buttons are set up from left to right with park, reverse, neutral, drive, and low selectors controlling the nine-speed automatic transmission. While reverse and drive are engaged by pulling on switches that resemble some power-window controls, the rest are buttons. By putting the plus and minus buttons on the far right, opposite the driver, GMC has found an even more awkward location for these controls. And here we were complaining when GM started putting the manual shift controls in the inconvenient-to-actuate location on top of its traditional shift levers. Maybe Terrain drivers can tap their front-seat passengers for a little shifting help if they tire of the reach.

What if you accidentally push the park button while driving? That depends how fast you’re going. If you’re traveling more than 3 mph, nothing happens to the transmission, although you do get a message on the instrument panel that tells you such an action is not possible. If you are traveling at a speed of 3 mph or less, the Terrain’s parking brake automatically engages and then the SUV automatically shifts into park. The emergency brake comes on first in order to prevent wear on the transmission, Spina said.

Another scenario: What if while you’re driving on the highway a restless passenger pulls at the reverse switch? In that case, the transmission automatically switches to neutral. Or, what if when you’re exiting the Terrain you leave it running and in reverse? As soon as you open the door, the transmission automatically switches to park, again with the e-brake engaging first in order to prevent a rollaway accident. If you turn off the Terrain’s ignition while it’s still in reverse or drive, the transmission automatically switches to park. In fact, one engineer told us, in the owner’s manual it actually suggests drivers can do that to save a step and not have to even hit the P button every time they turn off the vehicle.

We also tried some basic maneuvers such as backing into and out of parking spots, and indeed, with fingers on the switches, it felt dexterous enough to switch from reverse to drive and back at low speeds. It’d be difficult to conclude that GMC’s new shifter controls are more user-friendly than a stalk on the steering column or a traditional shift lever for an automatic transmission, but, if nothing else, it’s certainly less confusing than some of the other electronic shifters out there, especially if the minimal time journalists spent getting familiar with it is any indication—we didn’t even need the whole three hours that were allotted.

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