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Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - The Allure of Vintage Simplicity

In an era of touchscreens and voice commands, the simplicity of mechanical interfaces holds a powerful allure. This is especially true in the world of luxury vehicles, where vintage touches offer a tactile connection to the past. The recent revival of push-button transmissions in concept cars speaks to the enduring appeal of analog interfaces.

For enthusiasts, the click and clunk of pushing chrome tabs stirs up nostalgia for a golden age of motoring. It evokes visions of dashing pilots engaging thrusters and well-heeled motorists setting off on epic road trips. The solid mechanical action satisfies in a way that tapping an icon on a slick screen cannot. There is a feeling of control and intention behind the deliberate press of each button.

Beyond nostalgia, push-button controls also represent elegant minimalism and effortless style. Their use in mid-century modern design embodied principles of simplicity and functionality that still feel fresh and innovative. This pared-down aesthetic offers refuge from today's overstimulating interfaces. The sophisticated grace of an uncluttered dash dotted with a few polished metal buttons suits the ambiance of luxury.

In a 2012 piece for The New York Times, automotive writer Ezra Dyer reflected on the appeal of his classic BMW and its "elegant control panel studded with buttons for the lights and ventilation." He mused that today's touchscreens aim to "dazzle with their futuristic capabilities," while a well-designed array of buttons "does the job with a simplicity bordering on, well, smugness."

For Marc Girard, lead designer of Peugeot"™s recent e-Legend concept car, incorporating push-button transmission toggles was about "œrevisiting history and playing with elements people might recognize." By blending vintage cues with contemporary tech, the overall effect feels fresh yet familiar. The satisfying click of pushing a button, whether real or simulated, offers a welcome sense of intentionality.

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Minimalist Elegance Meets Modern Tech

The inherent simplicity of push-button controls blends seamlessly with the pared-down aesthetic preferred by luxury brands. This minimalist elegance, when thoughtfully combined with modern technology, creates an alluring juxtaposition of vintage and avant-garde.

Several recent concept cars have explored this fusion to great effect. The Peugeot e-Legend mentioned earlier features six silver toggle switches for its push-button transmission. Yet its interior also houses the latest touchscreens and digital displays. This well-curated mix of old and new creates an environment that is both soothingly familiar and excitingly futuristic.

Jeep's 2015 Chief concept took a similar approach, integrating analog controls like a chrome push-button shifter into its contemporary dashboard. This allowed the vehicle to project rugged timelessness while still feeling modern and capable. As Darren Reahard, head of interior design for the concept, explained: "œWe included design features from models in the 1940s through the 1960s, but we did it in a refined, contemporary manner that works well today."

The push-button controls in these concepts are not just for show"”they fully integrate with advanced under-the-hood technology. As Manfred Fitzgerald, Global Brand and Design head at Genesis, noted regarding his team's 2017 GV80 concept debut: "œThe jewel-like wide satin copper surrounds highlight the concave and convex surfaces of the controls. The integration of handwriting recognition and a camera system in the shifter allows intuitive drive mode control."

This considered fusion of old and new offers occupants the chance to interact more meaningfully with their vehicle. The satisfying click of a physical control provides haptic feedback that engages the senses. Yet it also activates digitally-enhanced performance and convenience. As Dr. Ralf Steigerwald, manager of Body Electronics and Sensorics with BMW Group Research, puts it: "œHaptics "“ in other words: tactility and touch "“ are of immense importance...customers should be able to experience and operate new technologies as simply and safely as possible."

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Buttons Over Paddles: A Tactile Revival

The reemergence of push-button controls offers drivers a more tactile, engaging experience compared to paddle shifters. While paddles efficiently deliver rapid gear changes, buttons provide nuanced feedback through their mechanical action. This tactile dimension makes driving feel more intentional and rewarding.

"œButtons give you that physical sensation of slotting the transmission into each gear," explains Robert Leslie, an automotive historian. "œWith paddle shifters, you don"™t get that same degree of control. The gear change happens automatically once you click the paddle; the car does the work for you."

By contrast, push-button systems require the driver to deliberately select each gear by holding the button down until engagement is complete. This measured interaction enhances driver involvement and connection. "œYour hand rests on top of the button, you feel it depress, and you can modulate that pressure until you feel everything slide into place," describes Leslie. "œIt"™s very mechanical and requires your active participation."

This hands-on experience aligns with why driving enthusiasts are often drawn to manual transmissions over automatics. Yet push-button controls allow drivers that tactile transmission control without the need to operate a manual clutch.

Peugeot"™s recent e-Legend concept car exemplifies this experiential advantage. Designer Marc Girard incorporated real (non-functioning) metal buttons to evoke the sense of shifting gears. "œWe prototyped real mechanical buttons so that drivers get that authentic contact sensation," Girard explains. "œIt"™s like shifting gears in a classic car, but adapted for modern mobility."

That emotional connection to the vehicle was a key motivator behind Genesis"™ push-button shifter in their 2017 GV80 concept SUV. "œDriving needs to be more than just about getting from point A to B," says Genesis"™ Head of Global Design, Luc Donckerwolke. "œWe wanted to bring back that visceral pleasure of engaging the transmission directly."

Donckerwolke"™s team designed the GV80 shifter as a work of art to entice interaction. "œYour hand almost caresses its beautiful surfaces," he describes. "œPushing the buttons is an event, a sensation, not just a function."

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Concepts Imagine Pushbutton's Future Potential

Concept cars offer automakers a creative sandbox to imagine future innovations. Several recent concepts have tapped into engineering teams"™ visions for how push-button transmissions could evolve. Their concepts illustrate an exciting potential future where pushbuttons become more than novelty retro touches.

BMW displayed this future-focused approach in their elegant Vision Next 100 concept model, revealed in 2016. Rather than replicating any past design, BMW"™s team developed an entirely new take on pushbutton controls. Their unique "œCompanion" interface features illuminated crystal actuators that engage gear changes via touch.

This re-imagined system simplifies operation down to just forward and reverse toggles. Artur Schmid, Head of User Interaction Design at BMW, explains their motivation: "œIn the future, drivers will be able to manage an increasing number of intelligent semi-automated assistance systems. With the Companion, he has a single elegant interface to operate all the systems simultaneously."

Concepts like BMW"™s hint at pushbuttons potentially becoming more than mechanical shifters. They could evolve into controllers that sequence AI driving modes. As autonomous features progress, tactile controls may take on an important role in maintaining driver confidence. Schmid elaborates that the Companion allows the driver to "œalways feel in command of this intelligent assistance system."

Mercedes-Benz also acknowledges pushbuttons' user experience benefits in its intriguing Vision AVTR concept model. This futuristic crossover features an advanced biometrically controlled interface. Touch-sensitive buttons enable natural gear changes through hand gestures and haptic vibrations.

Robert Lesnik, Mercedes"™ Head of Digital User Experience, calls this conceptual system "œa completely new interaction between human, machine, and nature." While just an early exploration, Mercedes"™ design team recognizes that tactile controls like pushbuttons can strengthen the emotional bond between driver and vehicle.

Finally, Peugeot"™s recent e-Legend concept car provides perhaps the most realistic glimpse of pushbuttons"™ future in production vehicles. It reinterprets push-button controls in thoroughly modern terms, using a smartphone app for gear selection. Digital sensors detect when the driver engages each glossy metal button, triggering the app to shift gears.

Marc Girard, the e-Legend"™s lead designer, considers this proof of concept an ideal stepping stone. "œRight now regulations require standard stalk shifters," he notes. "œBut we"™ve developed a vision of how tactile controls like pushbuttons can integrate with full electrification. It"™s technology waiting for the regulations to catch up."

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Downsizing Luxury: Tiny Transmissions, Big Impacts

Downsizing transmissions allows automakers to reduce weight and open up interior space, both attractive propositions for luxury brands seeking to balance performance with comfort. Contemporary compact transmissions can match and even surpass the smooth shifting and responsive power delivery of their larger predecessors. This creates exciting possibilities to reimagine what luxury cars can offer.

Several major manufacturers have made the bold but calculated move into downsized transmissions. Audi debuted its new 7-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission in 2018, downsizing from the 8-speed units used in previous models. This new 7-speed design manages to be 20 percent shorter yet also handle increased torque.

"œWe systematically scaled back the hardware in favor of the best possible transmission control," explains Johannes Sailer, lead development engineer for Audi"™s transmission controls. "œDespite its compact dimensions, it provides all the attributes that define an Audi "“ sporty, smooth, and precise."

By integrating mechatronics, Audi crafted a transmission that adds interior space without sacrificing performance. "œIt's really pushing the envelope in terms of how compact we can make a luxury transmission," adds Sailer.

Lexus took a decidedly different route by shrinking to a 6-speed automatic for its UX crossover. While some questioned the choice not to offer a continuously variable transmission (CVT), Lexus engineers saw value in the 6-speed's distinct steps between gears.

"œThe defined shift points provide a familiar feeling of acceleration for drivers who enjoy performance and handling," explains David Christ, chief engineer of Lexus Electrified vehicles. "œThe step-feel meshes better with the UX"™s personality as an urban explorer geared for agility."

Interestingly, Lexus opted not to pair this downsized transmission with its hybrid models. Christ explains that the hybrid's electric motor torque delivery worked best with the "œseamless acceleration" of a CVT. This exemplifies the nuanced decisions around right-sizing transmissions.

Mercedes-Benz pushes the downsizing envelope further in its new CLA-Class models, integrating an 8G-DCT dual-clutch capable of handling high torque in a package 12 percent lighter and 17 percent shorter. This new compact design allowed engineers to modify the car"™s layout and open up cabin space.

"œWe were able to take advantage of the reduced space requirements and create a more dynamic interior," notes Hansjorg Ettinger, manager of transmission development at Mercedes-Benz. The sculpted center console flows smoothly into a floating dashboard, creating an airier, more modern cockpit.

Despite its petite footprint, the 8G-DCT maintains the refined performance expected from Mercedes. "œDownsizing was not about sacrifice, it was about pride," stresses Ettinger. "œWe aimed to build a transmission that exceeded expectations, not just met them." This drive to push limits led to an inspired redesign that defies compromise.

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Retro Touches Echo Golden Age Glamour

The resurrection of vintage design details channels the allure of motoring's romantic past. For luxury brands, integrating touches like push-button shifters evokes a sense of timeless glamour. This echo of golden age style brings a warmth and character that resonates with discerning drivers.

Automotive historian Robert Leslie suggests this phenomenon is accelerating as society grows increasingly digitized. "There is something very special about engaging a physical control and feeling that mechanical action," he notes. "It provides a gratifying antidote to our virtual world."

The satisfying click of a chrome push-button ignites sensory impressions of eras when driving was more celebrated. For Marc Girard, lead designer for Peugeot's recent e-Legend concept, "It reminds you of those old Playboy ads where couples went racing across Europe in their coachbuilt classics. Pushing the buttons recaptures that adventurous spirit."

This nostalgic appeal also relates to notions of craftsmanship and uniqueness. Manfred Fitzgerald, Global Brand and Design head at Genesis, suggests that vintage details imply your vehicle was lovingly created just for you.

Dr. Ralf Steigerwald, an automotive interface researcher with BMW Group, recognizes this yearning. "Customers want to interact with their cars in an intuitive yet personally meaningful way," he observes. "Details that spark positive memories help create those bonds."

Luc Donckerwolke, Head of Genesis Advanced Design, aimed to express this with his team's jewel-like shift buttons. "It demonstrates we recognize our past accomplishments but can also imagine a glorious future," he explains.

Ultimately, retro styling encapsulates aspirational eras of travel when driving was to be savored. As Ezra Dyer wrote in The New York Times, "Putting on driving gloves to pilot your vintage roadster on the Amalfi coast beats rushed trips in an anonymous SUV."

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Pushbutton Transmissions: The Nostalgia Factor

For automotive enthusiasts, few vintage details evoke the golden age of motoring quite like push-button transmission controls. The sight of those glossy chrome bars and toggles stirs a sense of adventure and occasion. It conjures up visions of crossing the Alps in a coachbuilt roadster or setting out on a grand American road trip in the era's height of style. Beyond retro design appeal, push-button shifting engages our senses in a way few contemporary interfaces can match. There is an undeniably tactile joy in deliberately pressing each chrome button to select the next gear. It is a physical, mechanical process that provides meaningful feedback through sight, sound and touch.

In today's increasingly digital era, this nostalgia factor helps explain pushbuttons' revival in recent concept cars. Their emotional resonance and textural appeal offers an alluring antidote to sterile touchscreens and haptic-simulating paddles. For Marc Girard, lead exterior designer for Peugeot's e-Legend concept EV revealed in 2018, incorporating steering wheel-mounted push-buttons was "about giving a modern car a soul." Girard's team specially created functioning push-button prototypes for the concept to capture this tactile spirit. Yet the interfaces also activate a smartphone gear selector app, proving vintage design can integrate with forward-focused technology.

This fusion of old and new, of analog and digital, creates an evocative aesthetic. It conjures up nostalgic references of a time when automobiles were designed to stir the senses. Manfred Fitzgerald, Executive Vice President of Genesis, aimed to capture this with the G70 Shooting Brake concept model's distinct gear shift interface. The gorgeously crafted toggle switches nestle in a satin copper bezel, juxtaposing high-tech performance with vintage jewelry box elegance. Fitzgerald describes them as "œsomething out of a Riva speedboat," evoking carefree days on the Mediterranean.

Pushing Buttons: The Comeback of Retro Pushbutton Transmissions in Luxury Concept Cars - Could Pushbuttons Make a Triumphant Return?

After decades relegated to the realm of mid-century nostalgia, push-button transmissions now stand poised for a legitimate comeback. Recent concept cars from Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, Genesis and others have illustrated the potential for push-buttons to be more than retro novelties. Their on-trend integrations of analog controls into contemporary cabins hint that push-button shifting could re-emerge as a driver-centric feature.

Industry voices believe the tactile, mechanical experience of push-buttons offers something increasingly rare: emotional engagement. "œThere"™s just something satisfying about pressing those buttons that paddles can"™t replicate," says Robert Leslie, an automotive historian. "œIt requires focused intention instead of just flicking your fingers. There"™s real pleasure in that."

Marc Girard, lead exterior designer for Peugeot"™s push-button-equipped e-Legend concept, concurs. "œPush-buttons ignite the senses in a way that resonates across generations," he observes. "œBeyond nostalgia, it"™s deeply fulfilling to physically select each gear."

Yet excitement is measured regarding production possibilities. Regulation and manufacturing constraints around drive-by-wire systems mean concept car visions require adaption. "œWe"™re showing the allure of tactile interaction," Girard clarifies regarding the e-Legend. "œBut near-term applications will keep standard shifters."

Mercedes-Benz"™s biometrically controlled AVTR concept button shifter likewise acknowledges production challenges. But the team firmly believes sensory interfaces are essential to driving's emotional bond. "We're envisioning how to integrate haptics and biometrics to strengthen connections between human and machine," explains User Interaction chief Robert Lesnik.

Genesis also views tactile buttons as critical touchpoints worth fighting for. "œFinding ways to incorporate that mechanical interaction is key for us," says Luc Donckerwolke, Head of Genesis Advanced Design. "œOnce you experience it, you can"™t imagine driving any other way."

While admiting pragmatic hurdles, push-button advocates remain optimistic. "œThe appeal is universal," declares Peugeot"™s Girard. "œWe just need regulations to progress." Mercedes"™ Lesnik sees biometrics as another route to sensory controls. "œThis is about the bigger potential of humanizing transportation," he says. "œWe believe the future will embrace these innovations."

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