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Why is My Car Stuck in Neutral?

Why is My Car Stuck in Neutral

A transmission that’s stuck in neutral can be a huge inconvenience, especially when you have somewhere to be like class or work and you’re already late.

A transmission in an automobile is responsible for translating power from the engine to the wheels.

Putting a vehicle in neutral disconnects the engine from the drive wheels.

A transmission also reduces wear and tear on the engine by slowing down RPMs.

Understanding the causes and symptoms of transmission failure, along with how you can avoid them can save you a lot of money. And keep you from pulling your hair out when things go wrong.

There may be a number of reasons why your car is stuck in neutral. And in this article, we’ll explore the most pertinent ones.

1. Low Transmission Fluid

You know your vehicle. So, it’s alarming when it starts acting up.

One of the reasons why you’re having trouble shifting out of neutral could be due to low transmission fluid levels caused by a leak.

Leaking transmission fluid is one of the most obvious signs of transmission failure.

While your vehicle is parked, you’ll notice a sweet smell coming from the transmission area.

A transmission leak can cause serious issues such as overheating. Before your transmission locked itself in neutral you may have experienced other symptoms such as trouble shifting gears, delayed gear engagement or gear slippage.

A transmission leak can be the result of faulty seals or related drivetrain issues.

2. Damaged Shifter Cable

The process by which a transmission does its job varies depending on whether it’s a traditional automatic, CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) or manual transmission for example.

I’ve experienced my share of transmission issues. And what I can tell you is that manual transmissions are more affordable to repair than any automatic transmission. Especially considering how complicated automatic transmissions have become.

A manual transmission has two cables: one controls the horizontal movement of the shifter assembly and the other controls the vertical movement.

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Overtime these cables can stretch or even break. The most noticeable sign of shifter cable issues is a grinding noise which is different from the type of grinding noise you hear from a worn clutch.

Another symptom of damaged shifter cables on a manual transmission is if you feel a lot of play in the shifter as you move from gear to gear.

3. Faulty Shift Linkage

Although both manual and automatic transmissions both have a shifting linkage (which we just covered for manual transmissions above). Here we’re looking at the one for an automatic transmission.

All automatic transmissions have basically the same shifting linkage.

In an automatic transmission the shifting linkage is a cable connecting the gear selector to the transmission.

In modern automatic vehicles the gear selector is an electronic control unit that sits atop the TCM. Rather than shifting the transmission directly, this is more of a drive by wire system that sends signals to the transmission letting it know which gear you’ve selected.

But if this cable is damaged or broken, the transmission may not be able to shift out of neutral.

4. TCM Failure

This is a great time to talk about the importance of the TCM (transmission control module).

Automotive electronic systems while robust are sensitive. A fault with other ECUs can cause the TCM to short, overload, burn out and fail.

Since this component is responsible for sending shifting signals to the transmission. A bad module can cause incorrect or unintended shifting.

And if there’s a glitch the TCM isn’t able to work around, the car might get stuck in neutral.

A common symptom of a TCM issue is gear slippage when a vehicle is in motion.

Since the TCM is not giving the right commands, the result is sudden shifting or a transmission that won’t shift at all.

5. Faulty Brake Light Switch

There’s nothing quite like when something goes wrong to discover just how interrelated the different components of an automobile can be.

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The brake light switch is part of the brake-transmission-shift interlock system. It’s a small electro-mechanical component that has been attached to the shifter assembly of automatic transmissions as early as 1989.

It’s designed to keep the transmission from shifting out of Park without your foot on the brake.

But if your foot is on the brake and the brake switch isn’t getting the signal. The transmission may not be able to move out of neutral.

Experts agree that this component is designed to last the lifetime of the vehicle.

The only way to experience issues with it is if it was intentionally removed or disabled.

6. Defective Neutral Safety Switch

Sometimes, transmission issues aren’t as dramatic as they first appear. A real hassle can be caused by a simple problem if you know what you’re looking for.

A similar safety feature is the neutral safety switch equipped with automatic transmissions.

It’s designed to prevent a vehicle from being started in any gear accept Park and Neutral.

It’s a good thing and one of the reasons why vehicles with manual transmissions don’t come with an automatic engine start feature.

I’ve left cars with automatic and manual transmissions in gear. And if you try to start the car it likely won’t stop moving until it runs into something. Or worse, someone.

I’ve had the neutral safety switch fail on a 1994 Nissan Sentra I owned in college. I had to shake the transmission gear selector to get the car to start.

7. Damaged Transmission Gears

A transmission is a complicated system. Damaged gears can happen with an automatic or manual transmission.

Automatic transmissions are less susceptible to damage due to driving style than manuals even though they’re more complex.

But the typical cause of damage to transmission gears – besides lack of maintenance – is abuse.

Things like driving in reverse, then quickly shifting into drive is a big no, no for automatic transmissions.

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If the gears are damaged it can cause the transmission to seize into the neutral position.

Typical signs of damaged transmission gears include a burning smell, grinding gears and a leak in the transmission.

8. Wear to the Solenoids

Solenoids are electromechanical valves that manage the flow of fluid into and out of an automatic transmission.

These are major components designed to help you shift gears. Solenoid wear can result in:

  • Transmission damage
  • Shifting problems
  • And Pressure issues

The ECU – which is a vehicle’s computer – sends signals to the solenoids that it receives from other parts of the vehicle telling it:

  • how much pressure it needs,
  • when to shift,
  • how fast to shift,
  • and when not to shift.

Since solenoids move hundreds, even thousands of times per second. Wear and tear is inevitable.

This is why transmission maintenance with good clean fluids is so critical.

9. Low Exterior Temperatures

When its cold outside you may notice that your car becomes harder to shift.

Water freezes at zero degrees Celsius.

When the temperature drops, transmission fluids with poor cold-flow properties can expand causing the transmission to become locked in place.

Cold weather can cause an automatic or a manual transmission to be stuck in neutral.

Fluids in a transmission can freeze and expand causing cracks in the body of the transmission.

Shift points can also become delayed causing even harder shifting that leads to increased pressure on numerous parts of the transmission.

This is why it’s important to allow your vehicle enough time to warm up before setting off.