It's all too easy to forget to put an automatic transmission car in "park," but the consequences of a parked car rolling away can be very serious. To ensure this can't happen, Ford has developed "Return to Park" functionality, which detects when a driver is exiting a vehicle and automatically selects the P mode.
This isn't an entirely new idea. BMW's similar Shiftlock feature, for example, prevents a vehicle's key from being removed from the ignition unless the vehicle is in P mode, while some automatic transmission Mercedes vehicles will engage park mode if a door is opened when the vehicle is stationary or traveling at a low speed. Return to Park uses a similar conditional approach, but is instead based on sensors around the car.
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The P mode is engaged if the vehicle's engine is switched off, if the driver's door of a stationary vehicle is opened while the driver is not wearing their safety belt or if the driver takes their safety belt off in a stationary vehicle while their door is open.
The system can also detect if a vehicle's engine has been switched off while the vehicle is moving. In this instance, it will engage neutral until the vehicle slows to less than 5 mph (8 km/h), after which the "P" mode will be enabled.
It won't, however, be enabled if a driver wearing a safety belt opens their door while the vehicle is in motion. This is to accommodate situations such as freeing clothing that is stuck in the door or looking for markings when maneuvering into a parking space.
Return to Park debuts as a standard feature in the 2017 Ford Fusion and has been made possible by the inclusion of a new rotary shift dial in the vehicle. The dial uses the same three-module monitoring system that prevents Ford vehicles from from accidentally being put into reverse at speeds above 5 mph to allow driving modes to be selected.
"When we decided to go with the new rotary shifter for the 2017 Ford Fusion, the team all sat together in a room to see what additional customer benefit we could bring to the table," explains Ford's global e-shift systems technical expert Mark Zyskowski. "We thought about what we could add without getting in the way of normal day-to-day scenarios, and all agreed that a feature to help confirm Park is selected when exiting the vehicle seemed really worthwhile."
Indeed, Ford cites National Highway Transportation Administration figures that indicate there being 360 deaths in US between 2012 and 2014 as a result of accidents involving unattended vehicles with no driver control, which is said to be 19 percent of non-occupant deaths in non-traffic crashes annually. A further 2,000 people per year are said to be injured in similar incidents.
The video below provides an introduction to the Return to Park functionality.