Car Designers Can’t Resist Fiddling with Automatic Transmissions

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Illustration of automatic transmission

TM Detwiler

Back when cars only had three speeds manual and reverse, the gearshift possibilities were minimal. You have at least a one in four chance of getting it right. But after the automatic transmission was popularized in the 1950s, the controls for gear selection became a matter of design and ergonomics.

In 1971, the Department of Transportation mandated automation to use the PRNDL layout—say “prindle”. The impetus for this law, like many other auto regulations, dates back to the 1965 book Not Secure at Any Speed, in which Ralph Nader called out General Motors, Studebaker, and Rambler for using a confusing transmission design that placed Reverse after Drive. Nader cited accidents resulting from drivers missing the desired gear and accelerating in the wrong direction. The PNDLR pattern is dangerous, he insists. Plus, that’s not a pleasant thing to say.

It remains a matter of debate today. In 2016, Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin died when he was hit by his Jeep after failing to secure the vehicle properly in Park due to a confusing shifter design. The accident led to the recall of more than one million vehicles and the installation of software that places them in Park when the driver’s door is opened. Finally, parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles redesigned the affected models to incorporate shifters with a traditional PRNDL feel.

Despite the seemingly obvious driver benefits of keeping shift patterns consistent across cars and makes, designers couldn’t stop playing with their alphabet soup. Today, the mechanical connection that used to limit how odd the company could be with its shifters is gone, and the shift-by-wire gear selector gives the automaker added interior design flexibility since there is no physical link between the shifter and transmission. But freedom means PRNDL sometimes scatters like a fallen shelf of Scrabble tiles. The result is some weird configuration, like this one:

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Toyota Prius: Reverse Logic

The Prius has a mini shifter that moves up and down for Reverse and up and down for Drive. Toyota engineers should know that eccentric settings can inadvertently lead to incorrect gear selection, because when you switch to Reverse, the dashboard starts beeping like a box truck.

Ram: Which one makes the noise?

Ram put a tiny gear knob in the center stack near the volume knob. Be sure to look twice when you play the song.

The Aston Martin has a fairly simple PRND switch arrangement, with one disconcerting exception: The engine ignition switch is right in the middle.

BMW used to sell M cars with shifters that didn’t have Park. You must leave the vehicle in Reverse—which is at the top and to the left—or Drive when you turn off the engine.

Lamborghini: Special Information

Want to put your Aventador in Drive? Don’t look for the bottom button Reverse and Neutral. Pull the Lambo’s right paddle instead.

The Volkswagen ID.4 has a large toggle mounted on the gauge cluster. You have to reach around the steering wheel to get to it, and you can’t see the shifter, because the wheels are in the way.

We have to point out that you can get past this madness with a manual transmission, which follows the same pattern as usual. Though, wait, which side is Reverse again, and first gear is dogleg?

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