The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked Boston-based Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to conduct a study to determine how drivers react both in normal and emergency situations when confronted with six different styles of gear selector. It would appear NHTSA is concerned that the range of dissimilar gear selectors could be distracting to drivers. This study is the first step in determining if there is a threat and would be the basis should the agency pursues regulatory action.

While gear selectors are covered under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 102, the standard mainly addresses engine operation as it relates to gear position and not the design or placement of the selector itself. The challenge for regulators is to avoid over-prescribing a standard to the point that it suffocates innovation (i.e. a rule that says all gear selectors need to resemble the one found in the 1997 Ford Taurus.)

Electronic gear selectors are becoming more popular as they allow engineers to move the shifter from the floorboard to the dash or (back to) the steering wheel. This frees up space between the driver and passenger seat allowing designers the freedom to accommodate more important things like Big Gulps and iPads.

As vehicle technology advances and power train strategies diverge – gone is the ability and simplicity to simply jump into a vehicle, adjust the mirrors and go.  This new bigger, more confusing learning curve, especially in the early stages of ownership, can result in costly and possibly even fatal mistakes. Over the next 10-15 years the mandate-innovate equilibrium will be tested as automakers bring to market more and more advanced vehicles.

A selection from the the notice is below:

Abstract: The introduction of electronically-controlled transmissions has allowed much greater freedom in the design of driver interfaces, with the result that drivers are being confronted with new and different types of gear selector controls—joysticks, push buttons, rotary knobs, etc. This information collection is incidental to the recruitment of participants for human-factors studies designed to measure the ability of drivers to adapt to unfamiliar types of gear-selection controls. There is no known published usability research related to these new types of driver interfaces.

The proposed studies will examine driver response to non-traditional gear selector configurations in routine and emergency simulated driving scenarios, noting driver confusion, distraction and unintended consequences due to the unconventional gear selector configuration. The research method consists of driving simulations to collect objective and subjective data about six different gear selector types. Approximately 500 drivers will respond to the request for participants. It is estimated that of the 500 respondents, 360 will ultimately be recruited and participate. The estimated burden hours were calculated for the pre- and post-experiment questionnaires and for performing the driving tasks for the 500 respondents accordingly.

Participants will be tested individually in a driving simulator located at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center), which will conduct this research under an Intra-Agency Agreement (IAA) with NHTSA. The information being collected consists of that required for scheduling appointments and for balancing the subject sample across age groups, gender, and previous driving experience with various motor vehicle gear selector configurations. During or after the experimental sessions, participants may be queried regarding their perceptions and preferences about various aspects of gear-selection controls.

Participants for the driving simulator experiment will be selected from a list of eligible individuals who reside in the Boston area and have indicated to Volpe Center staff that they would like to participate in this experiment. All participants will be asked the same recruitment questions.