If you have a car with an automatic transmission, you might notice that there’s a shift lock release near the transmission lever. This feature takes the form of either a button or a slot where you can insert the ignition key. But what is this feature for? When should you use it? How does it work? Well, don’t worry, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know about the shift lock release in this post.
Shift Lock: What Is It For?
We’re talking about two components in this post: the shift lock, and the shift lock release. You may notice that under normal conditions, you will need to press the brake (and oftentimes a button on the gear shifter) when you want to change the gear in an automatic car. Especially when you want to take the transmission out of ‘Park’.
This is a safety feature so that the driver won’t accidentally take the vehicle out of ‘Park’, which can risk the vehicle rolling when you don’t want it to. It also prevents drivers from accidentally putting the car in ‘Reverse’ or ‘Park’ while driving. Doing this can destroy the transmission, leading to an expensive transmission rebuild. Hence why this feature is called a ‘shift lock’ since it “locks” and prevents the transmission from accidentally shifting gears.
What Does The Shift Lock Release Do?
Simply put, the shift lock release is there to manually override the shift lock system so that you can put the car in the desired gear. This feature is only available in cars with an automatic transmission. You will notice that there’s either a button or a slot (sometimes concealed) near the transmission lever. So, why do automatic transmissions have this?
Since around the 1990s, the shift lock mechanism in an automatic car is an electrical system. When the driver presses the button on the gear shifter and the brake pedal, this sends a signal to the shift lock to disengage. If the car battery dies, the shift lock release won’t activate since there’s no electricity to activate the system. Take a look at this video below to learn more about the inner workings of an automatic gear shifter:
This is where the shift lock release comes in. It’s basically a mechanical overwrite button that releases the shift lock present in modern cars with an automatic transmission. By releasing the shift lock, you can then shift the gears in your automatic car even when the battery is dead. For example, from ‘Park’ to ‘Neutral’.
When Do I Need To Use Shift Lock Release?
This feature is there to help you when your car breaks down and you need to push it out of harm’s way. Specifically, when the battery is dead since the gear shifter won’t move if the battery is dead. As you may know, the ‘Park’ gear in an automatic prevents the car from moving. This is because this gear will lock the transmission’s output shaft by using a pin-like device, preventing it from rolling away.
This is why it’s important to put your car in ‘Park’ every time after you finish driving or when you want to get out of your car. Even if you’re just leaving it for a while, you should ensure that you’ve put the car in ‘Park’, as the tragic death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin has taught us.
Anyway, since the gear won’t change if the battery is dead, you’ll need to use the release to overwrite it. For example, let’s say your car won’t start because of a dead battery in a car park. But there’s another car parked closely in front of it, limiting your access to the engine bay and the battery. This means you’re going to need to push it back to give you more space, and somewhere to park the helping car.
By using the shift lock release, you can put the car in ‘Neutral’. While in neutral, the transmission won’t lock, and you can push it freely. Remember to have someone inside the car to control the wheel and brakes if you’re pushing the car. After you push it, you can put the car back into ‘Park’ and then take out the key from the release. Afterward, you can start working on the car to start it back up again.
Why Don’t Manual Transmissions Have Them?
Manual gear shifters are mechanically connected to the transmission itself. Usually by the use of cables, or often referred to as gear linkages. Automatic gear shifters are also often still connected to the transmission itself, but in a manual, there’s no shift lock mechanism.
This is because it’s almost impossible to accidentally shift the car into an unwanted gear unless you’re consciously doing it. Since there are no electrical locks to prevent the gear from shifting, there’s no need for a shift lock release. Even when the battery is dead, you can still put the car in whichever gear you want since it’s all mechanical.
As you may know, manual transmissions don’t have a ‘Park’ gear. This means the only safety measure preventing the car from rolling away is the emergency/parking brake. However, if you park on an incline and you want better peace of mind, you can put the car in first gear after you turn it off. This will prevent the car from rolling away.
Keep in mind that you should always engage the emergency or handbrake first. After that, put the transmission in first gear (or ‘Park’ if you have an automatic). You risk damaging the transmission when you put it in gear first, as it has to hold the weight of the car. So, you should always engage the handbrake first. The transmission is there as the last means to prevent your car from rolling away.
How Do I Use The Shift Lock Release?
It’s fairly simple, if your car has a shift lock release button, then it’s really as simple as pressing the button. Then press the brake and move the gear shifter to ‘Neutral’, and now the car can move. Once you’re done, put the car back into ‘Park’, and press the button once again to lock it.
If you have a slot in your car keys instead of a button, here’s how to use it:
- In many cars, the shift lock release slot is concealed by a plastic cover. If the slot in your car is exposed, you can skip to step number 3.
- Take a pry tool or a flathead screwdriver to pry open the plastic cover. Be very gentle to prevent damage to the cover.
- Once the slot is open, insert the ignition key into the slot. You can also use the screwdriver but we recommend using the key.
- Push it gently, and you should feel a click when the shift lock release engages.
- Press your brake, and then move the gear shifter to ‘Neutral’.
- Take the key out of the slot and leave the car in ‘Neutral’. After this, the car can now move and you can push it as necessary.
- Some cars may lock their steering wheel. Reinsert the ignition key and turn it to the ‘ACC’ or On position to unlock it before you push the car so that you have control of the steering wheel.
Once you’re done, some cars may need you to insert the key back into the slot to move the gear shifter back into ‘Park’. In any case, engage the parking brake first. Afterward, move the gear shifter back into ‘Park’, and put the slot cover back in place.
I Can’t Find The Shift Lock Release, What Do I Do?
For some unknown reason, some carmakers like to make life difficult for customers. BMW is one of the companies that’s guilty of this by not having a shift lock release that’s easily accessible for drivers. Additionally, the shift lock release location and method of using it may be different depending on the model. For example, take a look at this shift lock release for the 2008 BMW X5:
As you can see from the video above, the BMW X5 requires you to remove a cover on the bottom of the left cup holder. Then by using a specialized tool, insert it into the slot and turn it. Afterward, the transmission will immediately engage ‘Neutral’. Admittedly, the tool comes with the car. But having a more conventional slot or button would make things a lot easier. Some other models are even more difficult as you can see here:
The shifter lock release in this 2007 BMW 3-Series requires you to pry open the gear shifter bezel/collar. And then you push a red tab inside, and then you can move the gear shifter. You will also need to do this on the MINI Cooper since BMW makes them.
While it does look more aesthetically pleasing, we still think a more conventional exposed button or slot is more convenient and worth the aesthetic sacrifice. In any case, if you don’t see a shift lock release button or slot, consult your owner’s manual to see where it is and how to use it.
If The Shift Lock Release Doesn’t Work: Potential Repair Cost
If the gear shifter still won’t move, try the procedure again. Make sure to press the brake pedal firmly, and that there’s a click when you insert the key into the slot. If it still doesn’t work, you may have a faulty shift interlock solenoid. The solenoid is a cylindrical coil that carries electrical currents. It works with the brake pedal to prevent the gear shifter from accidentally engaging reverse when driving.
In many cars, the shift lock release is completely mechanical and will work even with a flat battery. But in some cases, it may still need an electrical current to operate and work with a completely flat battery, preventing the shift lock release from operating. It’s designed to last a lifetime, but it may also become faulty.
In any case, we recommend contacting a trusted mechanic if you can’t take the car out of ‘Park’. If it turns out you need to replace the solenoid, expect to pay somewhere around $180 to $220 for a replacement, including labor costs. You can also replace it yourself; the process requires you to remove the transmission column to gain access to the solenoid, such as below:
The process of removing the transmission column cover will differ depending on the car’s make and model. In cars with the gear selector on the steering column, you’ll need to disassemble the steering column. Either way, the process typically requires you to unscrew several nuts and bolts and undo some plastic clips.
In any case, we recommend leaving this job to a professional. Removing and reinstalling interior trims can sometimes be difficult, and you may damage them in the process. Additionally, the labor cost for this replacement job isn’t particularly expensive. We recommend letting a professional mechanic do the job for you instead.
What Do I Do If My Car Battery Is Dead?
So now you know how to move your car when the gear shifter is locked because of a dead battery. But what do you do after that? How do you deal with a dead battery? First, let’s verify the battery is actually the cause for the car not starting. Here are the signs that you have a dead battery:
- When you turn the key to start the car, the starter motor doesn’t crank. If the battery still has some life left, the starter motor may still crank. But in this case, it will be very weak and not enough to start the car.
- As you crank the car, listen closely for any clicking noises. If there’s rapid clicking, this is confirmation that you have a bad battery. This rapid clicking means the starter motor solenoid is working normally and drawing current, but not enough to crank the car. Meanwhile, if you only hear one click, then you have a starter motor problem. This is the sound of the solenoid trying to draw current but is unable because they’re faulty.
- Dim or no lights at all. When you turn the key to the ‘ACC’ position (ignition on), this will turn on various electrical accessories such as the radio and interior lights. If the accessories seem dimmer than usual, you have a weak battery. If they don’t turn on at all, then the battery is completely flat.
- Battery warning light. Cars have a battery warning light on their dashboard which lights up when the battery is flat, or when there’s an issue with the alternator.
Jumpstarting The Battery
If you see the symptoms above, then the next thing you need to do is to jumpstart your car. Here’s how to jumpstart a car battery:
- You’ll be working with electricity. Make sure that you do this in a dry area with no moisture in the engine bay around the battery. Remove any jewelry on your body as a safety measure.
- You’ll need to get a hold of jumper cables and another car to help you.
- Park the two cars close to each other, where the jumper cables can reach the battery of both cars. Turn off the helping car and pop open the hood.
- Clamp one end of the red cable to the positive (+) terminal of the dead battery. Then attach the other end to the positive (+) terminal of the helping car’s battery.
- Clamp one end of the black cable to the negative (-) terminal of the helping car’s battery, and then attach the other end to an unpainted metal surface of the dead car. There’s lots of it in the engine bay.
- Start the helping car, make sure to turn off all accessories in the helping car. This is to make sure that it has enough power to charge the dead battery.
- After a couple of minutes, turn on the dead car.
- Carefully disconnect the cables in reverse order, be careful not to let the cable touch a metal surface if one end is still connected.
- Let the car run for a few minutes, turn off all accessories to let the battery charge faster.
- You should have enough charge to drive to the nearest repair shop and replace the battery.
Why Did My Battery Die?
Batteries are consumable items that will lose their capacity over time, and will eventually die. A good car battery will typically last around 2 – 3 years. But in some cars, especially ones with a stop-start system, the battery can die within its first year. It all depends on the battery quality and electrical demand of the car.
If your battery is still new, then you may have another problem causing your battery to go flat. One of the most common culprits for a prematurely dead battery is a faulty alternator. The alternator is a device that charges the battery and powers electrical accessories in the car by using the engine’s drive belt when it’s running.
A faulty alternator won’t be able to charge the battery properly. If the battery isn’t charged properly, it will lose its charge and at some point, it won’t have enough electricity to start the car. This is why it’s important to check the condition of your alternator, especially if your car is a bit older. Learn more about alternators here.
Other possible causes include bad ground straps or corroded battery terminals. Both of these problems will also cause charging issues for the battery, much like the alternator problem. Eventually, the battery won’t have enough charge to start the car again. In any case, check the battery system after you replace the battery. Checking the battery amps is a great way to ensure that the battery is charging and working properly.
How Much Does A New Battery Cost?
A new battery will cost anywhere between $45 – $250 depending on the requirement of your car and the quality of the battery. Auto shops often don’t charge labor for a battery replacement, and will often check the condition of the battery system as well after they install it. Just make sure you pick the right battery for your car.
The Battery Seems Fine, What Do I Do?
If your car won’t start but the battery seems fine, there’s a myriad of possible causes. Cars are an incredibly complex piece of machinery, and the slightest issue can prevent the car from starting. You should start by listening for a clicking noise that we mentioned earlier; one faint click when you turn the key means you have a bad starter motor. You can start the car by doing a push-start if you have a manual transmission, but you’ll still need to replace that starter motor.
Other possible causes include a bad fuel pump or lines, faulty spark plugs or ignition coils, and clogged air intake among many other possibilities. Or it may be something as simple as an empty tank of gas, we all forget to fill up from time to time. We wrote a comprehensive guide on how to troubleshoot a car that won’t start even though the battery is still good, and you can read it here.
Shift Lock: Wrap Up
To recap, the shift lock is a mechanism that prevents the gear shifter in an automatic car from accidentally engaging unwanted gears. For example, when in ‘Park’, the driver will need to press the release button along with the brake pedal to disengage the shift lock and move the shifter freely. It will also prevent drivers from accidentally putting the shifter into ‘Reverse’ or ‘Park’ when the car is still moving. This prevents accidental gear change that can damage the transmission.
Meanwhile, the shift lock release is a mechanical overwrite button that disengages the shift lock in the event of a dead battery. When the car’s battery is dead, the shift lock can’t disengage because there’s no electrical current. By pressing the shift lock release, you can move the gear shifter freely just like you normally would when driving.
This allows you to push the car to put it out of harm’s way or to a more favorable position. And then you can begin to troubleshoot why the car won’t start. Hopefully, this article has been helpful and will help you if you find yourself with a dead battery and a locked gear shifter.
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