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FCA gearshift recall highlights pitfalls of technology

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The death of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin involving a recalled Jeep Grand Cherokee has raised concerns over consumer safety and the importance of fail-safes for unfamiliar new vehicle technologies.

The SUV was part of a global recall of 1.1 million vehicles announced by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV in April after federal regulators found that new electric transmission shifters in some Jeeps, Chryslers and Dodges were confusing drivers and causing accidents. The recall expanded Thursday to include more than 13,000 of the automaker’s Maseratis in the United States.

It’s a unique situation because the shifters in the recalled vehicles operate how they were designed to — returning to the same position after each shift whether it’s in “park,” “neutral” or “drive.”

“There’s no ‘defect,’ but you could argue that gearshift lever is defective in design if people can’t understand it,” said Jack R. Nerad, Kelley Blue Book executive market analyst. “It’s probably a new area for NHTSA, where there are new ways and new technologies that are not necessarily easy to understand and mistakes could be made even though the system is operating as designed.”

Nerad said he expects more recalls to emerge as more automakers switch to the electric gearshifters that are compact and operate more smoothly than the traditional shifter.

But for now Fiat Chrysler is the only automaker with the automatic transmission and “monostable” shifter from German auto supplier ZF Friedrichshafen AG to recall any vehicles, even though the parts or similar ones have been installed in dozens of other vehicles globally.

That’s because the majority, if not all, of the other automakers that use electric shifters have fail-safes and more prominent warnings that automatically put the vehicles in “park” in the event of a roll-away occurring in neutral — and that’s part of Fiat Chrysler’s software solution for the recall that is currently being rolled out to dealers.

Shifter design

As delivered, the Fiat Chrysler vehicles deliver warning chimes and alert messages if the driver-side doors are opened while their engines are still running and “park” is not engaged. However, investigation suggested these measures may be insufficient to deter some drivers from exiting their vehicles without selecting “park.”

Other brands that use a ZF transmission and electric shifters include Audi, BMW, Jaguar and others that will automatically put vehicles in “park.” Some companies, including Toyota Motor Corp., have different transmissions with electric shifters but more intuitive designs.

For example, the Toyota Prius has a shifter that returns to its first position but there’s a button to put the car in park. Despite that, there have been at least two complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the shifters.

“The transmission gear shift is dangerously designed. The shifter will move into a gear positions even if it transmission does not actually shift into the gear,” reads one complaint about the Prius on the government vehicle safety watchdog’s website. “Whenever the handle is released, it springs back to the central position, whether the transmission is in gear or not, so the driver does not know if the transmissions is actually in gear or not – or if in gear, which gear.”

Toyota, in a statement to The Detroit News, said gear shifters its Toyota and Lexus vehicles “fully comply with all relevant federal motor vehicle safety standards,” citing if the ignition in the Prius “is turned off in other shift positions, the transmission is automatically placed into the ‘park’ position.”

Also to help prevent the car from going into neutral accidentally when the vehicle is not moving, Toyota added the driver must hold the shifter in the neutral position for a few seconds.

Investigation, fix

The Fiat Chrysler vehicles were recalled following an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that identified more than 306 incidents of Grand Cherokees rolling away after the drivers intended to shift the vehicle into park. Of those incidents, there were 117 alleged crashes, 28 of which reportedly involved injuries — including three fractured pelvises.

It has not been determined if the shifter contributed to the fatal accident that pinned the 27-year-old actor against a mailbox pillar and security fence at his Los Angeles-area home.

NHTSA said it is in contact with local authorities and Fiat Chrysler “to understand all of the facts related to this tragic crash, including whether or not this was caused by the current issue under recall.”

Fiat Chrysler, according to global head of Jeep Mike Manley, has not been able to analyze the 2015 Grand Cherokee involved in the fatal accident but hopes to be able to have one of its team look at the vehicle.

“We will, as soon as possible, carry out our full investigation,” he said during a media event on Thursday at the automaker’s Chelsea Proving Grounds. “Until that stage, obviously, there’s a huge amount of speculation on what may or may not happen. I’m not entirely sure that’s useful at this moment and time.

“We need to get through the normal investigation process. Until that point, as I said, I think there’s been enough speculation.”

Manley extended his “deepest sympathies” to the family and friends of Yelchin, a rising star best known for playing Chekov in the rebooted “Star Trek” series.

The company, in a statement Wednesday, said it began ramping-up a fix for the recall in May and the first dealerships began receiving the remedy last week — before the actor’s death.

The software fix for the affected vehicles includes warnings with a transmission-shift strategy to automatically prevent a vehicle from moving, under certain circumstances, even if the driver fails to select “park.”

The original recall involved 1.1 million vehicles, including 811,586 in the U.S.: 2012-14 Dodge Chargers and Chrysler 300 sedans, and 2014-15 Jeep Grand Cherokees. Fiat Chrysler changed the shifter design for the Charger and 300 in model-year 2015, and for the Grand Cherokee in model-year 2016.

A class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in California on behalf of four car owners against Fiat Chrysler “for fraudulently concealing and failing to remedy a shifter design defect affecting 811,000 vehicles and linked to driverless rollaway incidents that have resulted in injuries and accidents, including the death of actor Anton Yelchin.”

The lawsuit seeks recovery for owners’ losses including diminished vehicle value, as well as “recoveries for other damages and an injunctive order to end Fiat Chrysler’s allegedly deceptive practices.”

The company declined to comment on the suit, citing “It would be inappropriate to comment at this time as FCA has not been served.”

mwayland@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2504