If one thinks about it, it's incredible how many new things have been made to work like the old things they replaced. Because people are creatures of habit. We still 'dial' telephones, and they still 'ring'. We still 'type', and on QWERTY keyboards as walterbays points out. For how many years did automobiles look like the wagons they gradually replaced?
Habits can be changed, but it takes time and consistency. No matter how intuitive it may be to push a button forward to go forward, and pull it back to go backwards, habit will cause the majority of people to do the same thing with the button that they do with their automatic shift lever. Especially if they're in a 2 car family and switch back and forth between cars with shifters that work in opposite directions.
Can we have a show of hands of people who have driven in countries where people drive on the left side of the road, and who despite paying constant attention to what they're doing have never
turned into the wrong lane and had to make a rapid adjustment? Now imagine jumping into your car in a mall parking lot, cell phone to ear, and ramming into the car in front of you as you look behind you to see if the lane is clear. Being a safe driver you've already put the cell phone down to back up, but not before you hit the 'start' button and pushed the shift button in the wrong direction while still engaged in conversation. Or you rush out of the convenience store anxious to get home after work having bought the tampax your wife is in a panic for, only to ram through the store window because while your concious mind was on getting home your subconcious mind pushed the shifter in the same direction you've moved it for the last 30 years.
Trial lawyers would have a field day with an auto company that made a shifter work in the opposite direction from what we have all become habitually used to.
But I do like having the shift lever in my wife's Odyssey up there on the dashboard right next to the steering wheel! I can go along with moving the Leaf's shift button up there as well. Just have it work in the same 'backwards' way so that I don't accidentally drive out of my garage into my kitchen some day.
All cars with a center gearshift are "backwards".
But why can't the LEAF be different, more intuitive?
It's the same reason the keyboard you're typing on is as difficult to use as is possible.