John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, welder and hobbyist game developer.
If you drive a BMW with an automatic transmission, you may have experienced the dreaded “Trans. Failsafe” warning on your dashboard. It’s a warning that has become synonymous with vague problems and expensive repair bills. But what is it?
In this article, we’re going to explain the "Trans. Failsafe Prog" warning, and look into the possible reasons you might be experiencing it.
What Does "Trans. Failsafe Prog" Mean?
Understand exactly what is happening when "Trans. Failsafe" lights up on your dash.
Very simply, this warning means “Transmission Failsafe Program,” a feature that only applies to automatic transmissions. Failsafe mode can come with a number of different labels such as;
- Failsafe Mode
- Fault Mode
- Limp Mode
- Default Mode
They all mean the same thing, and that thing is that the computer in your vehicle has noticed something isn’t quite right and has decided that your transmission is at risk as a result of whatever has gone wrong.
The most typical manifestation of a transmission in failsafe mode (other than the dashboard warning) is the transmission being locked into one forward gear, unable to change shift either automatically or manually. The actual gear it will stay in varies from transmission to transmission, but it tends to be second or third gear.
Depending on the reason your transmission has gone into failsafe mode, you may be able to turn the engine off and back on and drive normally for a time, perform a vehicle-specific reset, or you may need a technician with specialist diagnostic equipment to plug into your car’s computer and turn failsafe mode off that way. Regardless, there’s a very strong chance that whatever caused your transmission to go into limp mode is still there, and you’ll have to get that fixed to prevent your vehicle going into failsafe again.
Failsafe mode can also be displayed in a number of ways across different vehicles. Some vehicles have the “PRND” light on the dashboard (standing for Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive) flash during failsafe mode, meanwhile, others simply light up a transmission symbol or cog. Some older vehicles give no obvious sign at all, leaving the driver to guess from the fact that the vehicle is no longer changing gear.
Why Is There a Failsafe Mode at All?
What is the trans. failsafe mode FOR? Let's find out.
If you’ve ever used a spacesaver spare wheel or temporary radiator leak fix, you’ll understand the principle behind failsafe mode. The idea is to allow you to get your vehicle home or to a repair shop so that it can be repaired whilst also minimising any damage caused by the fault.
It is intended to be a purely temporary measure to save you the inconvenience of being stranded when a transmission fault develops, but you would find it hard going to drive for any significant length of time or distance in failsafe mode.
What Should I Do If My Vehicle Goes Into "Trans. Failsafe" Mode?
So your car is in trans. failsafe mode. Now what?
As mentioned above, the point of failsafe mode is to allow you to drive your vehicle to a place it can be repaired, or stored until repair can be undertaken. That’s what should happen in principle. In reality, however, you should gauge your situation carefully.
When a transmission is locked into a single gear, driving in certain ways can exacerbate the problem, potentially leaving you with a car that won’t drive at all. If your vehicle has locked into a lower gear—such as first or second—then your speed will be limited as attempting to drive too fast will result in the engine over-revving. It should go without saying that driving a regular car with the rev counter in red for any significant length of time is not advisable. If your vehicle has locked into a higher gear, however, you’ll be able to achieve manageable speeds but stopping and setting off will be problematic. An automatic vehicle should be capable of setting off in third gear, however every time you do, you degrade the internal clutch plates of the transmission at a much greater rate than during regular driving.
With this in mind, you should first try determine whether or not your vehicle has defaulted to a higher or lower gear. Next, think about how far your intended destination is, and what kind of route you’ll be taking. If you were hoping to drive home but home is a long drive away, consider finding a more local repair shop and taking the vehicle there. If your car is stuck in a lower gear, try to avoid motorways/freeways as you’ll be revving your engine to dangerous levels and still not going anywhere near fast enough to safely drive on that kind of road. Conversely, if your car is stuck in a higher gear, avoid routes that will involve a lot of stopping and starting (such as busy town centres), putting undue stress on the clutches. Wearing the clutches down like this for too long can result in them breaking down and essentially clogging the transmission up, resulting in a loss of drive at best, and a large bill for a complete transmission overhaul at worst.
What Causes "Trans. Failsafe?"
Why does it happen? Let's find out.
This is a tricky question to answer. The "Trans. Failsafe Prog" warning is a little bit of a “catch-all” solution in that, anything that the computer in your car deems a potentially damaging threat to the correct operation of your transmission will cause it to go into failsafe.
For the sake of brevity, we will count any faults within the transmission itself as one thing. If you want to learn more about automatic transmission failures, check out this article on troubleshooting automatic transmission problems, but for this article, the transmission is a single component.
Aside from the transmission itself, there are many components that can cause a vehicle to decide to go into "Trans. Failsafe." The computer that decides when to change gear takes information from a number of places in order to calculate when the transmission should change. This data includes obvious places such as the vehicle speed sensors and the gear shifter position, as well as less obvious components such as air flow pressure and inclination. If any of these readings are inconsistent or missing, it could cause the transmission to go into limp mode.
Another more insidious cause is that of failing electronics. Things like faults in the instrument cluster (where your warning lights and speedometer is), blown fuses, and even a failure in the transmission control module (the computer that controls the transmission) itself can all cause "Trans. Failsafe."
Unfortunately, there really isn’t much you can do with an automatic vehicle that’s gone into trans. failsafe. Try turning the engine on and off to see if you get regular drive for a time, but if that works, do not assume the problem is gone for good, because it almost certainly isn't.
The best thing you can do is get it to a technician with as little driving as possible and let them plug their fancy diagnostic equipment into your car to find out why it’s gone into fault mode. Then take it from there.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 John Bullock
Jr Thumbu on June 02, 2020:
Hello, my car it's in lip mode bmw 540i but when we check we find that the center bearing it's broken. Then we changed the center bearing but it is still in lip mode after we have changed it, but we never reseted it with dignos machine. Please help me what must I do for now.
victor deaconu on February 27, 2020:
From an romanian owner of an X5 E53/2006: your article is EXCELENT ! Some "specialists" said: it's the automatic gear or transffer casse or aquator of transfer casse! I don't know what to think really???
john on November 25, 2019:
hi my x5 went into failsafe mode but when restarting drives fine through all gears .plugged into machine and code p0401 came up which is insufficient gas flow could this be the cause ?
Eva on August 11, 2019:
Hello! I got bmw x5 2005 and i had the same problem when im drive from hill. Used fo istop start up car again and it gone. But today when i drive from hill i stop to start again car, but fault still on screen and i can drive just in one gear..
Idris on July 27, 2019:
My Range Rover Vogue 2016 fail to start with remark Gear not in park
Jerome Stubbs on June 16, 2019:
KEV Yorkshire on May 20, 2019:
Had my tranns oil changed today took it for drive and 30mins later whilst driving fail safe program came on dash. Had to turn engine off to return car back to drive any ideas what i should do please ???
Rich on March 22, 2019:
Have a 02' X5 that this happens to also. If I go over 80mph it goes into this mode. Shut off the ignition and restart and it's gone until I go over 80mph again. No idea why.
Phyllis on November 02, 2018:
I would like to thank you John for all of your advice. I just had my 06 x5 in the shop. Changed both front axle shafts, rear main seal and oil pan gasket changed. Now driving it went into the trans safe mode 4x4 with airbag light on plus brake light. Prior to this, just yesterday I went to get new inspection sticker and it failed. When we put the code reader machine in it at home it had like 8 codes. Anyway I had to drive about 30 miles with it like this due to, I am a caretaker and was in need. So the one thing I didn’t see a response to was the part where it had the slight jerking thing when coming to a stop
Chris on October 24, 2018:
My 2001 x5 had this problem. Turned out to be the water cooled alternator.
Trey on September 06, 2018:
I have a 98 740il bmw that keep saying transmission fail safe program on the dashboard but i only have my check engine light on and im leaking transmission fluid. The car only goes in reverse and it wont move but it start up
Sampson on July 08, 2018:
My name is Sampson from Lagos, Nigeria.
I have a problem with my Range Rover Vogue 2005.
It's showing the TRANS FAIL-SAFE message on the dash. And wouldn't shift past 2 when I'm driving...and doesn't come back to 1 when I stop and want to move again.
Pls what can be the problem and solution.
The mechanic's around my clime are MLRE of trial and error guys, they don't have your kind of experience and end up causing more harm than good.
I changed the instrument cluster cos it wasn't clear and legible.
I couldn't read what the car was saying.
After installing the new one (a slightly used one) it showed the battery signal and I thought the alternator wasn't charging.
But checked and discovered it was charging.
I used it like that for a couple of days and later discovered the fail-safe mode warning.
By then, the positive battery terminal was already melting the plastic casing around it.
The alternator had burnt and I had to change it.
All efforts to get the battery warning signal off was futile.
I then changed the cluster back to the old one and all the problems stopped.
The battery signal disappeared but the fail-safe signal hasn't.
PLEASE HELP, ADVISE...
Thanks A LOT.
Sweetie109x on June 19, 2018:
Just extra info the computer came up with egs solenoid valve 2. If i change this part will it get my car out of limp mode? Thank you
Sweetie109x on June 19, 2018:
Hi i recently bought a bmw x5 4.6 is
Its gone into trans fail safe mode. Garage has changed transmission fluid now its saying the solenoid valve is faulty. If this is changed will it fix the fault? Thanks
Sean on April 30, 2018:
Hi I've got a 2005 Range Rover Vogue I've had a transmission failsafe program come up then I lost all drive switch your off for about 10 minutes 20 minutes start up and it would drive a foot then all it would do is rev and I wouldn't have no drive put on a scanner and it came up with combus sensor the man in the garage said it could be something to do with the wiring but before this all happened if I was driving down the motorway about 60 70 miles an hour and accelerated I will feel a slight jerk thought nothing of it could this be part of the problem and it's at the garage at present moment anyone got any ideas what could be the problem don't want to be paying the garage money for them to sit there scratching their heads so please anyone can help in my problem thank you
John Bullock (author) from Yorkshire, England on April 22, 2018:
What specifically do you mean by "giving me transmission error"? If the vehicle is going into failsafe mode then there *has* to be fault codes stored in the transmission module (unless the module itself is faulty). Fault mode is the result of a stored fault code, not the other way round. If you're getting this error then at the very least your dealer should be able to scan the vehicle and tell you what fault code is causing the problem.
Sandra on April 18, 2018:
I took my vehicle in because it keeps giving me the transmission error while I am in park. It will say to secure my vehicle and then it run through all the different gears as if it can’t detect Park. However the BMW dealership says they can’t duplicate the error nor does their computer read the error I received. Is that possible? I really feel they are avoiding fixing the issue because I have a warranty still.
Mohsin ahmed khan on April 02, 2018:
I have a bmw 528i my trans fail safe program come on today and and my vehicle was defective on lower gear so plz tellme now what can i do first plz help
Cynthia on March 03, 2018:
I have a bmw x5 my trans fail program came on today but went off. So if I take it to AutoZone can they check it with their machine since the light is no longer o
John Bullock (author) from Yorkshire, England on January 05, 2018:
Hello Alfred. Unfortunately "Trans. Failsafe" is just a general purpose indicator (as is the engine warning light). You need to have your vehicle code read to find out specifically what errors have put the transmission into failsafe mode. Most garages should have a diagnostic machine capable of doing this.
Andrés on August 31, 2017:
Thank you very much
John Bullock (author) from Yorkshire, England on January 02, 2017:
Glad to hear it, Wayne.
wayne adderley on January 02, 2017:
THIS PAGE HAS BEEN AND IS EXTREMELY HELPFUL THANK YOU
I LIVE IN NY AND STUCK IN NC WILL FIND MECH. IN NC