How To Drive an Automatic Van

No longer are times when driving a van seemed like pulling over 1000 kgs by hand. Modern vans are more like cars these days; hence handling them is as easy as driving a car.  

Fundamentals such as stability control systems, adjusting the steering wheel & operating the brakes are similar to that of an automatic car.  

Since vans are massive structures, minor adjustments need to be made by the driver, like positioning the seat and mirror adequately, slowing down, changing lanes & parking. 

The gearstick, has four controls for you to remember: P-park, R-reverse, D-drive & N-neutral. Start your van with a key while your foot is on the brake, move the shifter to drive.  Once you are moving, the gearbox will automatically select the correct gear for the speed. 

And there you go riding your automatic car with all the expertise you need. To make it even more straightforward for you, I have listed the step to step procedure here: 


1. Memorize the location of the controls  

As a beginner, you must learn the position of each & every item in a van by heart. Eventually, this will help you navigate the controls without taking your eyes off the road. Each of them will be at a different place about which you must know.  

Here is a list of vital things you need to figure out the location of before getting hands-on driving a van:  

  • Brake & accelerator  
  • Gearstick & its controls  
  • Hazard lights  
  • Horn 
  • Headlights- high & low beam  
  • Indicators  
  • Washer & Wipers  


2. Learn to operate the automatic gear  

I have made it easier for you to memorize by dividing all the functions into categories:  



As soon as you select the park option on the gear stick, your van is locked so your vehicle won’t roll-off or anything. In most scenarios, the “park” option is present at the top of your gear stick, denoted by the letter P.  

If you want to park your automobile, first ensure it is not moving. If you try and change the gear to park when the van is moving; it will try to lock the van’s wheels, which can cause problems.   



You can use it to reverse the van. Before using it, make sure that your vehicle is moving. If it is in motion, putting the vehicle into reverse gear can damage its transmission.  



This function is the same as driving a manual car with no gear engaged. So, unlike the park mode, the gearbox is not locked.  

Hence, you can use it if you need the van to be towed or pushed for any reason.  



You can drive the van without worrying about which gear the vehicle should be in. The automatic van will choose the gear itself according to the speed you are moving. 


Low Gear Selection Modes 

Some automatics come with the option of changing gears. Although this possibility varies from van to van, I will explain the most common variations.  


Gear 1 or D1  

This is similar to driving a manual gearbox, in that the number 1 denotes the first gear. Sometimes it is represented by the letter “L,” which means low gear. It can also be marked as D1, which also means the same.  

The van will be locked at 1st gear only or 1st & 2nd gear when it is selected.  


When to use it 

Suppose your van is descending down a steep slope; selecting L1 is the best option as it will reduce the risk of the engine being overheated.  

You can also use it when descending a steep slope as it will maintain the engine power while your van is climbing up.  


Gear 2 or D2  

When you have selected it, some automatics will only operate at gear one & two, while others will only function at gear 2.  


When to use it 

Low gears are all about maintaining the torque, or in simpler words, they are all about stabilizing the engine power.  

Helping the van while ascending or descending a steep slope can also be useful if the truck is stuck amidst the snow.  

Nowadays, some vans even have a “snow mode,” which is about shifting your car to 2nd gear.   


Gear 3 or D3 

Likewise, gear 1 & 2, Gear 3, means that the van will move at gear three or move at any gear from 1 to 3 accordingly when selected. 


When should you use it? 

This gear must be used when you need higher speed or more engine power. If you are towing a heavy load for which you need more power from the engine, then you can use the third gear.  

This gear gives your van a solid push, maximizing its energy. 


3. Starting the van  

Starting an automatic van is not a daunting task at all. Here are steps listed in the order that you can follow:  

  1. Before starting the car, use your right foot to firmly press the brake pedal . 
  1. Next, start the engine with the key or by using the button.  
  1. Press the security release button situated on the gear selector lever. 
  1. Finally, pull the gear to select down to the D-driver position.  

One of the fantastic safety features of a modern automatic van is that it won’t start until you press the brake pedal firmly after starting the engine.  

This feature was introduced to ensure that the vehicle doesn’t move automatically once the engine is started.  

Moreover, the security button on the gear selector lever prevents accidental gear changes into reverse, which can damage the engine and gearbox if you do it while driving forward.  


4. Driving the van forward. 

Once you have successfully started the van, the next target is to move your vehicle.  

  • Your right foot must be on the brake pedal, which will stop the van from moving forward unexpectedly.  
  • Move the gear shift to D position.  
  • Release the hand brake.  
  • Gradually release the brake pedal too. As soon as you leave the brake pedal, the car will move forward.  



  • If you are driving up a slope, you will need to press the accelerator pedal van a bit further to get it moving.  
  • Press the brake pedal harder if you can not move the gear shift to drive.  
  • Note that the gear is in the drive position, not at neutral.  


5. Gently accelerate when on the road. 

Once you have mastered the art of moving your van forward smoothly, it is the time to gently accelerate.  

  • Keep it slow until you are on the road.  
  • Gently accelerate by pressing onto the accelerator pedal with your right foot.  
  • After achieving this speed, keep the momentum steady.  
  • Practice makes a person perfect hence. You will find that the speed fluctuates like a pendulum & it will take a good amount of practice to drive a vehicle at a constant rate.  


6. Slow down before changing down  

In a manual van, you cannot change the gear directly from the most to the least. Likewise, in an automatic van, you need to slow down before shifting the gear gradually.  


7. Stopping the van where we need it to stop  

Just imagine that while you are peacefully driving upon a quiet road, then suddenly a red light or other situation means you have stop immediately; hence we need to learn how to stop smoothly.  

  • It would be best if you could put pressure on the braking pedal entirely, but still make sure you can keep control of the vehicle, and it is safe for any packages and passengers you may have.  
  • As you advance closer to the place you need to stop before, release the pressure.  
  • Partially release the tension; at this point, you must not entirely remove the pressure from the braking pedal.  
  • If you fully release the pressure from the brake pedal, your van will slowly move forward. 
  • Practice it a lot as exercising it numerous times will make you understand how much pressure you need to put & release while stopping your van.  


8. Set the brake & shift gear to neutral to park 

We have come a long way from learning how to start our van to speeding it slowly over the road. Now is the right time to know how you can park your van.  

So follow these easy steps to get your car parked at the side of the curb:  

  • Press the brake pedal with your right foot.  
  • Shift the gear to neutral, denoted by “N,” as mentioned.  
  • Set the parking brake. 
  • Finally, shut off the engine by taking the keys off.  


9. Taking corners & bends 

To ensure that your van turns smoothly around corners, bends & edges of the road, you need to slow down gradually.  

Slowing down your vehicle will automatically change it into low gear, if you over speed, your car can skid.  

Nothing else needs to be changed; just the deceleration rate needs to be controlled so you are driving safely. 


10. Know what to expect in different conditions 

Now that you are over the fundamental lesson of how to drive an automatic van, you must know how to navigate through different kinds of places.  


On motorways:  

Motorways are smooth to drive & you can quickly drive at high speed. There is no significant difference, and you have to stay in drive mode, which automatically means going at top gear.  


In traffic jams:  

No one likes to drive through traffic jams, they are quirky & the driver needs a lot of patience to get out of them. But don’t panic. Automatics are exceptionally built to tackle such traffic jams; you have to shift between first & neutral and drive. That’s pretty much it.  


While overtaking:  

Well! If you want to show someone your sporty side by overtaking them., you can let the automatic gearbox choose the gear, or choose the gear yourself, such as D3 for extra sportiness.  


Common errors that you must avoid while driving an automatic:  

As a beginner, there are some common errors that most people make. Hence, to prevent them, I have compiled these critical points to go through: 


Braking too hard: 

It is never a good choice. If you do that, you will stop short of where you wanted to stop & you will have to accelerate again to reach the correct position.  

Of course, you may need to brake quickly in emergencies. 


Braking too slowly:  

If you do this, you will have to brake harder at the end, or you will finish up further than you needed, such as in intersections which is quite an unpleasant & dangerous experience. 


Quick tips for you to drive an automatic car  

  • Ensure that when you are shifting between D & R mode, the van is stationary.  
  • Never put your van in neutral mode while traveling down the mountain as in this way, you will lose most of control of the vehicle.  
  • Due to any malfunction, if your gear lever is not working, you can use any sharp object or your keys to press on the shift lock.  
  • While putting the transmission in neutral or parking mode, do not press on the accelerator as this puts pressure on the gearbox, breaking the components.  
  • If your vehicle won’t start , it could be because you don’t have the transmission in neutral or parking mode.  
  • Always place your heel steady on the floor in a V-shape.  
  • If you are not moving the van for 30 seconds, put it to neutral mode.  
  • If you are parking where you are not on the road for 30 seconds or more, put it to parking mode.  
  • Adjust & check your side mirrors for navigating the traffic behind you.  


Practice & you are all set to go.  

If you have made it to the very last, I am so proud of you. Finally, the pro tip that any beginner must remember is that practice will make you perfect.  

If you have invested your precious 10 minutes in reading my advice till the very last, then congratulations, you have mastered the trick of gathering the essential information you need to drive your automatic vehicle.  

You can’t be perfect at driving your automatic van unless you practice hard. So experience will make you suitable competent doing this tricky thing.