The problem with automatic transmission vehicles is that trying to push or move the car is impossible unless the vehicle is neutral. Unfortunately, automatic cars rely on electricity to shift the vehicle from the park position into drive, reverse, or neutral, which doesn’t help if you have a flat battery and need to move the car. However, you can follow some tips in this article that you may not have thought of, allowing you to push the vehicle.
1. Try the key
Often the most overlooked way of moving an automatic car from park to neutral is to press the brake pedal, turn the key, and try the shifter. Some vehicles (Ford Focus is one from memory) allow you to move the shifter with the car battery completely flat as long as you press the brake pedal with the key in the ignition turned on.
Once the car is set into neutral, you can release the brake pedal and move the car without it starting. This doesn’t work on every vehicle, but it is something that not many people remember to check it works, especially as all the other methods require more effort.
2. Locate the shift lock release
The shift lock release button allows you to take control of the shifter while the battery is dead or the ignition is off. You may see a tiny liftable panel or a button next to the gear stick on many automatic transmission vehicles; it may be labeled as a ‘shift lock release.’
It’s not always in a prominent position, and you may need to pop the surrounding gear shifter trim to locate the release button. You will need a tiny flathead screwdriver to pop the panel up. Once lifted, you may see a button that can be pressed; with the button pressed, you can push the lever into neutral. You do not need the keys in the ignition or any power to the transmission for this to work. When you move the shifter into neutral cables and rods, change from park to drive neutral or reverse in the gearbox.
Once in neutral, you can move the vehicle; however, please remember you cannot bump start an automatic, and you’ll require at least two people to push a car, one to steer and brake, the other to push. Also remember you’ll need to use the parking brake to park the car, as if you put the car back into park, you’ll need to repeat the whole process to move the car again.
One thing to note is the design of how you use the shift lock release will vary in different car models; some may be a button, whereas others may require a screwdriver to turn a mechanism or even release the shifter.
3. Use a jump pack
Let’s say you couldn’t find the shift lock release button, and the jump pack doesn’t have enough charge to start the car, or you may not want to start the car for whatever reason. You can still use the jump pack and the little power it has to move the shifter.
Apply the jump cables with the red cable to the battery positive first, then the black cable to the negative (ground) on the battery. Put the key into the ignition, turn it into the first position, put your foot on the brake pedal, and move the shifter from park to neutral. Providing the battery jump pack has at least a small amount of charge; it should allow you to activate and move the shifter. Remember to remove the cables taking the black off the battery first and then the red second (the reverse order to how you put them on).
If the jump pack has enough juice, starting the car with a jump pack would be the best option to get it started so you can move it. Allow the vehicle to run briefly to charge the battery before you drive.
4. Lift the wheels
Lifting the driving wheels onto wheel dollies and moving the car on them works well on front or rear-wheel drive cars. Moving a four-wheel car like this rarely works well unless you have four-wheel dollies to jack the car onto and a few people to help control the vehicle when moving it.
You should only consider doing this if you move the car on a smooth, clean surface and have the right tools. You will need 1 or 2 trolley jacks and wheel dollies to put under the wheels. Lift them with the trolley jacks using the car’s correct jacking mounts, and put the dollies under the driving wheels depending on whether it is front or rear-wheel drive. You will then be able to push/move the car around. These work incredibly well maneuvering around tight workshops when a vehicle fails and won’t start.
The last tip to remember is if using dollies on a front-wheel drive car, don’t forget it will only move side to side until you release the handbrake.
5. Tow the car
It’s not always possible to get an automatic transmission into neutral, so you may need to tow the car. If using a breakdown service, they will have all the right tools to move the vehicle onto a flatbed truck without causing any damage to the car.
You won’t be able to tow the car with a tow rope because without the car being in neutral, it won’t work. However, it will be possible to use a wheel lift towing system, but this must be used on the driving wheels. So if you have a front-wheel drive car, the front wheels must be on the towing device. This is still the case even if you manage to get the car into neutral.
Even if you manage to get the car into neutral, you should avoid towing an automatic transmission vehicle with a tow rod or rope.
Downside to towing an automatic transmission car
The problem with towing an automatic transmission with a car in neutral is the heat and friction build-up that can damage an automatic transmission. Automatic transmissions rely on engine power to pump lubrication onto bearings and gears, regulating the heat inside.
Towing an automatic transmission in neutral can cause quite a lot of irreversible damage, even when towed for a few miles. For this reason, you should always use a flatbed tow truck, as this method allows all four wheels to be off the ground.
Final thoughts on how to move an automatic car with a dead battery
To move an automatic car with a dead battery, you need to get the car out of park and into neutral. Without getting the vehicle into neutral, the driving wheels will remain locked. The good news is all automatic transmissions have some manual override which will allow you to move the shifter into neutral, enabling you to move the car. If you cannot do this for whatever reason, there are other methods you can use, which have been covered in this article, so don’t panic. You will be able to move the car!