PRNDL Is An Abomination And Must Be Stopped

PRNDL — that little set of letters on an automatic shifter — must be stopped.

No, this isn’t a rant about how much better manual transmissions are. This is about how user-centered design can save lives.

I was sad to see of the death of Anton Yelchin, and frustrated to see the cause. Once again someone thought their vehicle was “safe”, parked and stationary, and once again it had run them over. This is a very serious scenario; best cases are broken bones, but often it results in paralysis, limb loss, or death. And there’s simply no good reason for it to keep happening.

A lot has been made of Dodge/Chrysler/FIAT’s confusing pistol-grip shifter, and that’s part of the problem. It replaces the historic “location” pattern with a hip new “direction” pattern, and it’s hard to adjust. (For decades, you move the lever to a location to put the car in Park. In these vehicles, you push it in a direction, and then it returns to center and you’re left wondering what happened. This happens in the tactile realm, and tactile input can override sight or sound in many cases, so the lights and beeps that result aren’t enough to make a distracted driver realize their error.)

But that’s not the root cause. The root cause is Neutral.

The Bane Of Neutral

Neutral sounds safe. Where do you stand on the issues? Oh, I’m neutral. Neutral ph. Neutral buffering solution. Neutral’s not good, not bad, just…neutral.

But in an automatic, “Neutral” really means “No one has control over the car”. It’s all up to slope and inertia at that point. It’s not a mode you ever need, not in a modern automobile embedded in a modern world.

Someone needs to be taking charge of this vehicle; either you, or the brakes, or the tow operator. Someone. You can’t have multi-ton vehicles rolling around unconstrained. But that’s what we’re left with, for historical reasons. Neutral used to be the solution to a number of problems — but in automatic cars, we just don’t need it any more.

A task-based approach

Let’s look at the reasons why you might put your car in neutral:

  1. You need to be towed.
  2. You need to bump-start (push-start) your car.
  3. You want to roll your car forward like two feet because you didn’t park close enough and who wants to restart their car for that.
  4. You’re a mechanic checking wheel bearings, etc.
  5. You want to ride the whip but aren’t brave enough to put it in Drive…let’s not go there.

So let’s solve those, instead of forcing them all into “neutral”.

Edit: Based on comments below, I missed a common scenario: going through the type of car wash where your car is dragged through via a conveyor belt. (After one-too-many paint scratch incidents I’ve stopped going to these, in favor of ‘brushless’ car washes, so I’d forgotten. A reminder that you are not the only user!) Tow mode suffices here too.

Towing: this one’s probably the most important use case. It deserves its own control. A “Tow Mode” switch would solve this, and could engage lots of other things at the same time (e.g., turning off the “I’m being stolen” tilt sensor that some cars have).

The thing is, most of us get towed maybe once a year — maybe!

So let’s make it once-a-year accessible. Maybe it’s a separate lock you put your key in, or a button you press for 10 seconds. Not something right next to a lever you have to touch every time you start or stop driving.

Bump Starting: You can’t really bump-start automatic cars. Next question.

Sneaking forward two feet: Deal with it; just turn it on and off again. Or, put it in tow mode. Again, this is not something you need to do every day.

Mechanics: Mechanic Mode sounds super useful, and could have a variety of other side effects. The car should not be driveable in this mode.

Riding The Whip: You’re on your own here. Work up the courage to Drive-surf, or better yet, don’t.

So get rid of Neutral. Don’t conflate strategic-level controls (like ‘tow mode’) with tactical level controls (like a gear selector). And stop putting “once in a blue moon” controls front and center, wedged between two modes you use multiple times each day.

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