Why car gear shifters are so confusing

'Star Trek' actor dies in freak accident
'Star Trek' actor dies in freak accident

Putting your car in park used to be easy. Stop the car, squeeze a button and push the gear selector all the way forward until it lines up with the letter P. Turn off the car and walk away.

It's not always so simple anymore.

Many cars today don't have a mechanical connection between the lever and the transmission.

That has let automakers to creative with gear selector designs. The new shifters, which use buttons, toggles and knobs, take up less space than traditional gear shift levers, leaving more room for cupholders and slots to hold smartphones.

One of these clever space-saving designs was used on some Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models -- including the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the vehicle involved in the tragic death this week of actor Anton Yelchin.

The gear selector in Yelchin's vehicle returns to the upright position after a driver selects Drive or Park. In other words, it doesn't remain in the position the driver moves it to for parking. At a glance, that could make it difficult to be sure the vehicle was actually in Park.

Yelchin was crushed after he apparently got out of the Jeep without putting it in Park. The SUV rolled forward and pinned him against a wall.

Back in April, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had announced a recall to make those gear selectors safer. The fix for that recall hasn't been implemented but FCA (FCAU) has sent notices instructing owners to take care when parking and to always use the parking brake.

FCA isn't the first automaker to issue a recall because of a confusing gear selector design.

Ford Motor (F) had to recall 13,500 Lincoln SUVs because, in the the push-button gear selector, the S button -- for "Sport mode" -- was right above the Engine Start Stop button. Drivers were accidentally shutting off the car just when they wanted an extra dose of acceleration.

I experienced that problem firsthand while test-driving the Lincoln MKC -- an excellent compact SUV -- just as I had also experienced the problem with Fiat Chrysler's gear selector.

lincoln mkc push button recall
Ford had to recall the Lincoln MKC because of a dangerously confusing push-button gear selector.

Over many years of driving different types of cars, I've experienced just about every crazy gear selector design out there. While many of them are initially confusing, most aren't dangerous once you get used to them.

gear selectors
When the Toyota Prius first came out with this new gear selector, it baffled at least one garage attendant.

The first time I brought a second-generation Toyota Prius into a parking garage, the valet was completely baffled. He couldn't even make it go. I explained that he needed to pull that funny little lever thing over to the side and push it down to put it in Drive, and then press the button to put it in Park.

And, only recently, when I showed up at the garage with an Audi R8 sports car, the valet couldn't figure out how to put it in Park.

gear selectors
In the Audi R8, Park is engaged by pressing a small button on the gear selector.

"Push the button on the front of the gear selector!" I said.

It didn't help. I finally reached across his body and put the car in Park myself.

In most of these cases, the designs don't cause real danger because it's clear when the vehicle is -- or isn't -- in Park or Drive. It's just hard for some drivers to figure out how to get there.

Some of these novel designs are, in their own way, perfectly clear and easy to use. In newer versions of the recalled Chrysler 300, there is now a knob to change gears. Turn it all the way to the left for Park and to the right for Drive.

gear selectors

In newer Dodge Charger and Jeep Grand Cherokees, meanwhile, designers have gone with a new electronic shifter designed to mimic an old-school mechanical one. Again, easy and clear.

Still, with all these new gear selectors, I long ago learned the lesson that Fiat Chrysler is now trying to teach owners waiting for their cars to be fixed. I use the parking brake every single time. Just in case.

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