Car Designers Just Can't Resist Messing with Automatic Transmissions

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Car Designers Just Can't Resist Messing with Automatic Transmissions

Back when cars only had three manual speeds and reverse, the possibility of mixing up the gears was minimal. At least you had a one in four chance of getting it right. But after the popularization of the automatic transmission in the 1950s, the controls for gear selection became a question of both design and ergonomics.

In 1971, the Department of Transportation mandated automatics use the PRNDL—say "prindle"—layout. The impetus of this law, like so many automotive regulations, stemmed from the 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, in which Ralph Nader called out General Motors, Studebaker, and Rambler for using confusing transmission designs that put Reverse after Drive. Nader cited crashes resulting from drivers missing the intended gear and accelerating in the wrong direction. The PNDLR pattern was dangerous, he asserted. Plus, it’s not nearly as fun to say.

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

Despite the seemingly obvious driver benefit of keeping shift patterns consistent across cars and brands, designers just can't stop playing with their alphabet soup. These days, the mechanical connections that once limited how wacky a company could get with its shifter are gone, and shift-by-wire gear selectors give automakers additional interior-design flexibility since there's no physical link between the shifter and the transmission. But freedom means PRNDL is sometimes scattered like a dropped rack of Scrabble tiles. The result is some strange configurations, like these:

The Prius has a mini shifter that moves over and up for Reverse and over and down for Drive. Toyota engineers must know that the oddball arrangement can inadvertently lead to selecting the wrong gear, because when you shift into Reverse, the dash starts beeping like a box truck.

Ram puts a small transmission dial on the center stack near the volume knob. Be sure to look twice when you go to crank up the tunes.

Aston Martin has a pretty simple arrangement of PRND buttons, with one confusing exception: The engine ignition button is smack-dab in the middle.

BMW used to sell M cars with a shifter that didn't have Park. You had to leave the vehicle in Reverse—which was up and to the left—or Drive when you shut off the engine.

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

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

Car Designers Just Can't Resist Messing with Automatic Transmissions

Temporary License Plate We have to point out that you can skip this madness with a manual transmission, which uses the same pattern it always has. Though, wait, which side is Reverse on again, and is first gear a dogleg?