To the average baby boomer, the idea of driving a car with a joystick or something resembling a video game controller sounds far-fetched. But ask the same question of a typical 15 year old, and he's likely to tell you he's already used those controls to become a champion WRC Rally driver - on the video game circuit, that is.

It could be years before radically different driver controls or “user interfaces” become reality, but the underlying foundation already is being built on many of today's new cars and trucks.

Mercedes R-Class concept: Moving shift lever to steering column frees up key real estate.

Most of these technologies fall under the sexy “by-wire” umbrella, where electronics are replacing traditional mechanical linkages in systems such as steering, braking and throttle control, but other mundane mechanical controls are going fully electronic as well, almost without notice.

Traditional mechanical ignition keys are being phased out, and space-robbing mechanical parking brakes are being replaced by a simple push button, for instance.

The latest application flying under the radar is an electronic shift lever for automatic transmissions, or an electronic PRNDL, as it is sometimes called (for the letters on a typical shift level bezel that stand for park, reverse, neutral, drive and low.)

The innovative and controversial BMW 7-Series debuted with an electronic shift lever mounted on the steering column in 2001. Now they are cropping up regularly on other models. The all-new Mercedes-Benz M-Class and upcoming R-Class cross/utility vehicles both feature the device. Mercedes spokesman Rob Moran promises we will see it on more models in the future, although he won't be specific.

The obvious benefit to the consumer is more useable center console space for driver and passenger. On BMWs, it makes room for the iDrive control knob. On Mercedes CUVs, it allows for bigger, more user-friendly cupholders.

However, designers say transforming the transmission shift lever from a clunky mechanical device to a compact electronic one opens up a whole new world of design opportunities in the future that can improve space utilization and forever alter the driving experience.

“You can create intelligent space where it used to be filled up with brackets,” points out Rus Shafer, director – industrial design at Intier Automotive Interiors. He adds that eliminating cables and other mechanical connections between the shifter and transmission also cuts cost and weight, and allows the shifter to be placed anywhere. It could even be turned into a series of pushbuttons on the instrument panel.

“What's pretty neat about this is you're going to see a lot of new formats,” says Bill Fluharty, vice president – industrial design, new product strategies at Johnson Controls Inc. Fluharty says joysticks are not around the corner on everyday vehicles, but designers definitely are looking for new ways to input control, especially for younger Gen Y buyers who are less married to conventional steering wheels, knobs, levers and buttons.

Auto makers can really get creative with the center console space with no big architectural element such as a shift lever limiting them, he adds. “There's more room for cell phones, PDAs, iPods, new nooks and crannys.”

“I'd call it the tip of the iceberg,” says Intier's Shafer. “No question it's the direction we're going.”