— Fiat Chrysler (FCA US) and its electronic gear shifters used for vehicles with 3.6-liter engines are the focus of an investigation after Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin, 27, was struck and killed by his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The investigation is in the beginning stages and information is limited, but it's known Yelchin exited the Jeep Grand Cherokee which rolled backward and down a driveway, pinning the actor between the Jeep and a concrete mailbox.
The electronic gear shifters found in 2014-2015 Grand Cherokees are the focus of a recall of more than 1 million Chrysler vehicles that also includes 2012-2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 cars.
Authorities haven't released details concerning any recall notices sent to Mr. Yelchin or if the actor even knew the Jeep had been recalled. It's also unknown if the Grand Cherokee's transmission was in neutral, something the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it's looking at to determine if the event was caused by the electronic gear shifter.
The gear selector is unlike standard gear shifters found in automatic transmission vehicles. Going by the "feel" of the shifter to know which gear you're in doesn't work with electronic shifters because a driver must look at indicators and lights to know if the transmission is in "PARK" or any other gear because the lever always returns to the center position.
Chrysler says it's aware of at least 212 crashes, 41 injuries and 308 property damage claims related to confusion over the electronic gear shifters.
The issue shows how introducing new technology can confuse consumers who are accustomed to shifting automatic transmissions the same way for decades.
FCA says the shifter works as designed, but after hundreds of field reports and complaints, the automaker admitted the design was confusing and changes should be made.
In August 2015, NHTSA opened an investigation after reports of massive confusion over the electronic monostable gear shifters. The investigation focused on rollaway events in 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees, but NHTSA later upgraded the investigation to include model year 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 cars.
According to documents filed with NHTSA, Chrysler says "strategies" are built into the monostable gear selectors and vehicles to keep consumers from exiting the vehicles with the transmissions out of PARK. But the automaker admits nothing has stopped vehicles from rolling away because consumers aren't aware the vehicles are not in PARK.
"FCA US has therefore determined that the absence of an additional mechanism to mitigate the effects of driver error in failing to shift the monostable gear selector into PARK prior to exiting the vehicle constitutes a defect presenting a risk to motor vehicle safety."
The automaker also warned what can occur if the parking brake isn't applied before leaving the vehicle.
"Drivers erroneously concluding that their vehicle’s transmission is in the PARK position may be struck by the vehicle and injured if they attempt to get out of the vehicle while the engine is running and the parking brake is not engaged."
At the time the recall was announced, FCA said the "fix" would consist of a software update to include an additional mechanism to "mitigate the effect of operator error in failing to shift the monostable gear selector into PARK prior to exiting the vehicle."
Center for Auto Safety Steps In
The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) says Yelchin's death is the latest example of incompetence on the part of the government and automakers concerning safety defects.
CAS says Chrysler didn't take the issue seriously because the automaker didn't tell owners when the vehicles would be fixed. FCA issued an interim notification letter that said the gear selectors would be repaired by the fourth quarter of 2016, something CAS says proves the automaker wasn't too concerned about the matter.
CAS has asked FCA to tell owners to park their vehicles until the recall repairs are completed and provide loaner vehicles until the repairs are finished.
The Center also says if Chrysler cannot repair the vehicles right now, the automaker should offer to repurchase the vehicles from owners. In addition, CAS wants FCA to update consumers about what is being done to fix the vehicles and provide specific details concerning when replacement parts will be available.
CarComplaints.com will update our website with results of the investigation into Anton Yelchin's death.
How to Operate an Electronic Gear Shifter in 3.6-Liter Chrysler Vehicles