Home » It’s Absurd How Difficult It Is To Put Some New Cars Into Neutral When They Break

It’s Absurd How Difficult It Is To Put Some New Cars Into Neutral When They Break

Transmission Lockup Ts
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Inevitably, on a long enough timeline, any car will go seriously wrong. If a car really, properly breaks down, it helps to put it in neutral and get it out of the way. Sounds easy enough, but these days, it’s a little more difficult than it used to be if you have an electronic shifter.

You know how you have to put your foot on the brake before you can shift an automatic car out of park? Not only does this function prevent cars from rolling away while parked with a simple bump of the shifter, but a shift lock solenoid is also required by federal law. As per NHTSA:

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Each motor vehicle manufactured on or after September 1, 2010 with a GVWR of 4,536 Kilograms (10,000 pounds) or less with an automatic transmission that includes a “park” position shall be equipped with a system that requires the service brake to be depressed before the transmission can be shifted out of “park”. This system shall function in any starting system key position in which the transmission can be shifted out of “park”. This section does not apply to trailers or motorcycles.

This shifter interlock function is well-intentioned and historically easy to work with. When a car dies on the side of the road or in a parking garage with no hope of hooking up a jump box for ignition power, overriding this safety function has usually been fairly easy, but circumvention of it for the purposes of moving a broken car has been complicated by electronic shifters.

In the past, automatic transmission gear selectors were connected by a cable, which was connected to the transmission. By simply popping an easily accessible release usually located near the shifter with your key, the shift lock solenoid would release, the gear selector would move and let a driver put a dead car in neutral so it could be pushed out of the way. However, electronic shifters are only connected to transmissions using wires, which means automakers have needed to get creative with emergency shifter lock releases.

Screenshot 2024 06 10 At 1.09.42 pm

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The 2019 to 2023 Porsche Cayenne features one of the better examples. As Assistance Services Group highlights in a handy PDF, Porsche includes a special tool in the vehicle that can be inserted into a slot in the floor and then turned 90 degrees. It’s a touch more involved than pulling a tab near the shifter and pressing a button, but it’s easy enough.

On the old Jaguar XF, one of the first cars with a rotary-style shifter, you had to pry off an unlabeled access panel just ahead of the cup holders, twist a release, and then pull a red strap. The car would then go into neutral, and the crazy part is, that’s the easiest Jaguar Land Rover has ever made it with this shifter. Mid-2010s Range Rovers had the emergency release under the cup holder, and that just isn’t an intuitive place at all.

So far, we’ve covered electronic shifters with obfuscated emergency shift releases in an unintuitive way – but at least they didn’t require workshop tools. Enter the Lincoln Aviator, which makes you use a tool that isn’t included in the vehicle to put it in neutral in an emergency. Most tow truck drivers probably have a small flathead screwdriver on their rigs among other tools, but I bet most Aviator owners don’t.

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Oh, but it gets worse. F82 BMW M4 and F80 BMW M3 owners who didn’t opt for the row-your-own option don’t have a shift lock override inside the cabin. Instead, you’ll need to jack the car up, crawl underneath, remove a Torx bolt from the side of the transmission, and cable-tie the gear selector shaft into the neutral position. Needless to say, this is absolutely insane, and enough to cause some head scratching for those who work on vehicles for a living.

Screenshot 2024 06 10 At 2.32.29 pm

Those who drive cars with manual gearboxes are likely feeling a bit smug right now, but here’s the thing: Occasionally, people require rental cars, and things can still go wrong on rental cars with fancy electronic shifters. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to easily put a dead car into neutral and push it, but automakers seem intent on making things more difficult than they need to be.

(Photo credits: BMW, Assistance Services Group, Reddit)

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Cranberry
Cranberry
8 days ago

Fun fact, ZF9/9-speed midsize Honda’s with the push-button shifter require a pricey, specific tool (sold separately, a knockoff can be found I hear) that is poked into the engine bay.

Jeffrey Johnson
Jeffrey Johnson
9 days ago

I don’t know which features I don’t need.

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
9 days ago

A lot of BMW’s with the 8HP auto require getting under the car, removing the underbody panel covering the transmission, and screwing in a 5mm allen bolt that presses on a lever and puts the transmission into neutral. Lots of fun to do that on the side of the road, as you might imagine.

Sklooner
Sklooner
9 days ago

They tow cars for street cleaning- saw the neighbors RS6 being towed with the back wheels just sliding along the road- they moved it about 500 meters like this, he is not a happy camper

Josh O
Josh O
9 days ago

Driving a 2010 Genesis I lost all power while at a stop light killing the engine in the process. Car was in drive and there was no way to put it in park or engage the parking break qucikly. No flashers, could not roll down the window, was on an incline so had to keep foot on the brake, open door and motion for traffic to move around. Fortunately I found a tiny screwdriver in the glovebox to pop off the little cap to release the shifter to park.

Plan B was to roll it back to the curb but could not adjust mirrors down to see said curb.

Jeff Kaufman
Jeff Kaufman
9 days ago

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017, we walked out to find a guy in his MB AMG GT 55 stranded right in front of my driveway because he thought he could drive it through 3 feet of water. Couldn’t get the transmission to move since the car was pretty dead. Because of the madness in Houston, I had to call a dealership in Austin to walk me through getting his car into neutral so I could even push it out from blocking my driveway. Wasn’t exactly the issue I needed with all the other garbage occurring.

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
9 days ago

The manual transmission is dead. Long live the manual transmission.

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
9 days ago
Reply to  Shinynugget

Two weekends ago, I was back home visiting my dad in a nursing home as he recovers from a fall. It had started raining as I left his house and still was 10 minutes later as I pulled into the nursing home.

While pulling in, I noticed a very nice MGB at the house next door, sitting in the driveway with the top down. I walked across their yard, rang the doorbell, knocked on the door, no answer.

The car happened to be sitting in front of an empty car port…fuck it. Popped into the driver’s seat, put it in neutral, let the parking brake down, and rolled it in. I never did see anyone but I hope they were very confused when they walked to out to check on the car. It rained for several more hours.

Thanks, old technology!

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
9 days ago
Reply to  Shinynugget

My daughter watched me jump start my kei car when the battery was dead (car is light enough that I can do it solo!). On Saturday, the battery in my ’03 Ford Focus was empty from not having been driven for like six weeks and she wanted to help me push start it. When I explained that this cannot be done with an automatic, she had a look of disgust/annoyance which made me happy for her future.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
9 days ago

This is why I drive my old Buick. Transmission is connected to the shifter by a cable. Throttle is connected to the gas pedal by a cable. Steering rack is connected to the steering wheel by a mechanical linkage. Brakes are connected to the brake pedal by hydraulic lines. Door latches are connected to the door handles by mechanical linkage.
How is electronicalizing ANY of these things a good idea? What real-world benefit does it offer?

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
9 days ago

I have no idea how to shift to neutral with a dead car, but I do know that my dog has twice shifted into neutral while driving simply by changing her position on the seat and bumping the shifter with her butt. Isn’t the little button on the side that you push while shifting supposed to keep that from happening?

https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/chevrolet/bolt/2019/photos-interior/gear-shift

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
9 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

Not from D to N. This has always been possible without pushing the button in case the engine dies while you’re rolling.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
9 days ago

Luckily for me, the car is smarter than the dog so when she tries to knock it into Park it defaults to neutral and gives me an alarm stating “Conditions are not right for a shift.” Nearly caused an accident the first time because I was getting off the highway when she bumped it and suddenly had no regen while coasting. Had to hit the brakes sooner and harder than expected.

JKcycletramp
JKcycletramp
9 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

I have an enthusiastic German shepherd and for everyone’s safety, I keep him secured away from the driver and all controls.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
9 days ago
Reply to  JKcycletramp

Yeah, I’m going to have to do that. She’s just 6 months old and my mental image of her size can’t keep up with her actual growth so really she’s too big now to be in the front seat with me anyway.

JKcycletramp
JKcycletramp
9 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

Mine accelerated his move to the hatch by puking into the cupholder during Hour One.

Sklooner
Sklooner
9 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

I had one that always turned off the traction control

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
9 days ago
Reply to  Sklooner

Back in the mid-1950s, my 4-yo dad climbed into the front seat, took out the key from the dashboard, and flung it into the rear seat. At speed*, on the Autobahn.

Luckily it was in his uncle’s 1952 Mercedes-Benz 170 Diesel, so it had no steering lock and the diesel engine kept chugging along since it doesn’t require a spark.

*) “at speed” being relative, the OM636 engine developed 40hp and the car weighed 1275kg/2800lb

Sklooner
Sklooner
9 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

We had a 57 190 gas and I grabbed the column shift and moved it into neutral on the 401 outside Toronto

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
9 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

1990s Toyotas have a clearly marked “shift lock release” button. Love it.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
9 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

That is why I always use the parking brake every time I shift into P and switch off the engine.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
9 days ago

Our new manual transmission car has an electronic parking brake. I was annoyed since I had to start the car just to roll it back a few feet in the driveway. I guess I should be happy we have half the issues other people have. At least we can select our own gears, and neutral is between all of them. I’d still love to add a manual parking brake on a lever like it should always be. Also, I’m getting older and water is wet.

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
9 days ago
Reply to  MikeInTheWoods

Can’t you just turn the ignition on without starting the engine? It’ll probably beep at you but should work fine.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
9 days ago
Reply to  GirchyGirchy

I’ll read the manual, but it’s push button ignition, and doesn’t seem to have an ACC setting? I prefer an actual key, but apparently that’s not an option these days on a Civic? Nuts.

Ben
Ben
9 days ago
Reply to  MikeInTheWoods

On my push button cars you just press the button without your foot on the brake to put it in ACC. Another press gets you to On without the engine running, which is necessary for some things to work.

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
6 days ago
Reply to  Ben

That’s how every push-button ignition vehicle I’ve driven has operated.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
10 days ago

God how I hate the shift lock solenoid. Hate it hate it hate it with the fire of a thousand suns and apparently it hates me too because it’s tried to kill me on a couple of occasions.

This is the scenario: You’re driving along minding your own business on say the interstate. For some reason, there’s an engine hiccup and the engine stalls but because it’s a goddamn automatic, the fact that you’re moving, doesn’t start the engine again. The fact that you’re in gear keeps you from using the key to start the engine, so you have to come to a complete fucking halt and put the stupid transmission into park. In the middle of traffic. Oh, and the oower steering turns to cement and probably the beakes atop workinf the second gime you use them. Then, and only then you got to start the engine. In the middle of traffic. Who’s stupid idea was that?
Did I mention how much I fucking hate that interlock? Stupid stupid stupid.

I understand this is what got all those people killed in the Chevy Cobalt.

Im sure that it actually makes the car more expensive How is this a safety feature?

Fortunately, on a Volvo S4 for example it’s pretty easy to bypass the whole cluster fuck and install a button that will spin the starter anytime you want to.

Did I mention how much I dislike this?
Basically its the number one reason to never get an automatic, they are dangerously fucked up in this regard.

Last edited 10 days ago by Hugh Crawford
Brynjaminjones
Brynjaminjones
10 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

You can usually start the engine in neutral too, so you don’t have to come to a stop. You certainly can in my cars – maybe newer cars will be a bit more restrictive!

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
9 days ago
Reply to  Brynjaminjones

I was going to say that. You don’t have to stop and put it in park, throw it in neutral and it should start without a problem, assuming it can start.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
9 days ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

Perhaps on some cars, not on this one

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
9 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

So weird and dumb

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
9 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

Why would the engine stall when motoring along at speed?
How could it possibly stall when it’s spinning along at 2000-3000 rpm?

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
9 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

Torque converters mean the engine can stop while wheels are still turning.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
9 days ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

Yes, that is why all those people in the Chevy Cobalts got killed when the steering and brakes stopped working at speed because the engine had stopped turning over.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
8 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

I was under the impression they died because the weight of excess keys on keyrings turned off the ignition, locking the steering wheel and causing them to continue rolling along into whatever was in front of them.

When an engine is off, the brakes will still work as will the steering (as long as the column isn’t locked) they just take more effort, and therefore longer, to stop and turn since there’s no power assistance.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
8 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

No, if you read the reports, when the engine stopped turning over they lost the power steering and the power brakes. Modern cars pretty much assume that the steering and brakes are going to be power assisted so they’re pretty high effort without the assist. Plus, most people have no idea what to do in that situation.

The steering wheel didn’t lock.

And it wasn’t a matter of the keys turning, it was that if the key wasn’t pressing against the end of the keyway the ignition cut out, and the spring that kept it in contact was weak.

Really stupid design. And the fix was stupid too, they just made the spring stronger. The failure mode is still there

I believe that there is a contact that touches the end of the key that lost contact. I could easily be mistaken, but I believe it was very similar to the contact back in the 1970s that made the dashboard buzz if it was turned off, and the key was in the ignition. Everybody I knew would file the end of the key off to make that stop.

Last edited 8 days ago by Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
9 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

According to two different mechanics, one at the Volvo dealer and another independent shop, it was attributed to some combination of fried computer and intermittent fault in the wiring with a possibility of rodent damage to the wiring being a contributing factor.

It would cost a few thousand dollars just to find out so I just bypassed all that stuff and drove it for another year or two.

Amusingly it passed California smog.

James Carson
James Carson
10 days ago

On my 18 accord it’s hidden under an access panel under a tray in the pocket area in front if the shifter. You need a small screwdriver to push the release. Pros, can be done from drivers seat. Cons, not very intuitive and has to be done by feel alone.

Ottomottopean
Ottomottopean
10 days ago

There’s certainly been a lot of talk here, both from the writers and commentators that cars today do not have repairability as a consideration in modern designs. To me it is an interesting dichotomy in the way we are progressing in our views of environmental sustainability at least in public while at the same time we are making more and more products disposable. Even the cars.

I can’t help but think this issue is related. It’s a problem of attitude. Save cost on manufacturing at all detriment to the costs of repair and longevity.

I look at all of the incredibly impressive technology that is developed and designed for the modern car today and can’t help but think it is all steps backwards in the design, functionality and usefulness of the vehicle. We are being sold features and capability that no one asked for and told this is the way forward. I just don’t get it. Go back to designing car features with the idea of solving a problem for the user/owner instead of trying to push these features on us because they are slick looking with diminished usefulness and lower costs that benefit only one party (manufacturer).

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
10 days ago
Reply to  Ottomottopean

Hi! I’m a design engineer for OEMs.

We do consider serviceability in new designs, not least because the pay is shit so we all drive old cars. We know when something is going to piss off the fourth owner in 15 years.

However, the only owner that gets a voice is the first owner, and what those dicks want is maximum features for minimum money. E-shifters allow cute tricks with steering wheel paddles (like getting to neutral by holding them both down or getting to drive by holding +), automatically shifting to park on engine-off and not having to go through neutral to go from drive to reverse and back. People like these features. They also allow more styling options without a shifter stuck up in the middle of the tunnel, and people like slick looking interiors.

While they don’t save the manufacturer money on parts (buttons and actuators cost more than cables and a lever), they do save some money on ease of assembly, because the interior and powertrain aren’t physically linked, but there’s way more software development and validation.

So it’s all about what the first owner wants, and if they don’t like it we’re all out of a job.

If it helps: nothing breaks down more than early prototypes, so no one gets to endure being stuck with a dead car locked in gear more that OEM engineers. I know a guy who popped home for lunch and the car bricked itself, blocking his drive with camouflaged prototype for a week until it was finally towed on to a truck with the wheels locked.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
9 days ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

Nobody knew they wanted these things until manufacturers started putting them in cars.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
9 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

OEMs try new things all the time, it’s not until something is successful that everyone else has to do it too.

What are we supposed to do? Fit a 90’s PRNDL lever and tell disappointed new car customers that it’s so the third owner will be less annoyed when it breaks down on them? That’s how you go out of business.

Even the most vacuous money-grabby pointless option still has to pass durability testing, so it’s not like OEMs are cynically designing-in trendy failure points. Apart from anything else a reputation for poor quality hurts sales. Just look at the British car industry.

Gerontius Garland
Gerontius Garland
9 days ago
Reply to  Ottomottopean

I’ve said this for a long time. A massive part of a car’s environmental impact is its initial manufacture. Keeping an old car running forever is better than buying a brand new one every other year. But that’s incompatible with capitalism, which is structured around consumption and selling you more goods and services than the previous quarter.

The example that always springs to mind is the Phoebus Cartel. A century ago, light bulb companies were competing to produce the longest-lasting bulbs. Ultimately, they were too successful, and sales faltered as people rarely needed to buy bulbs because they lasted for years (decades even, in a few notable examples). So the light bulb companies got together and colluded to engineer their bulbs to last no longer than 1000 hours in order to force people to buy bulbs more often. Even after the cartel broke up, companies kept to that lifespan standard. Think about all the glass and metal and energy used to make those lightbulbs, and the space they take up in landfills. We could’ve used a fraction of that in the last century, if not for the greed of some executives.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
9 days ago

My brother is an LED geek. He says LED bulbs are still deliberately made to burn out instead of lasting forever.

Ben
Ben
9 days ago

The light bulb thing is not that simple. Yes, we could build light bulbs that would last forever, but they’d also be garbage compared to the light bulbs we actually have. Technology Connections did a video about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zb7Bs98KmnY

Basically the 1000 hour lifespan was chosen as a happy compromise between bulb life and light quality, not to force everyone to buy more light bulbs.

Edit: And as I watch the video, I am reminded that the energy efficiency of those long life bulbs is bad, which means it takes more electricity to produce a given amount of light. It’s not even greener to make bulbs last forever.

Last edited 9 days ago by Ben
VanGuy
VanGuy
9 days ago

The pollution of building a more fuel-efficient car and driving it x number of miles can beat the carbon footprint of keeping that old car for another x number of miles. Depends on what’s being replaced with what.

And yeah, see Ben’s comment with the Technology Connections link. That particular issue is more complicated than that.

Cerberus
Cerberus
10 days ago

As if I needed another reason to decry new cars and the needless electrifying of proven mechanical systems to the detriment of reliability and servicing. Certainly, it doesn’t help the case of people who tell me “but automatics shift faster now and claim better mileage on paper get better mileage”. As if faster shifts are something I should care about, anyway.

FlavouredMilk
FlavouredMilk
10 days ago

There’s an equally horrid alternative from BMW.

You have to jack it up, crawl underneath, on some of the M cars there’s a 6ft under tray, others have a smaller one just covering the trans, and then you drive a bolt (not supplied) through a threaded tab on the side of the transmission, which pushes a small lever which disengages the transmission and puts it into the emergency neutral.

Real PITA for how many insurance jobs I used to do.

Pic: https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTrpPObOM7Wd_rTMzTohMlbquhBMT-UQlZU8A&usqp=CAU

Last edited 10 days ago by FlavouredMilk
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