FCA's electronic gear shifter is confusing because it violates basic design guidelines for vehicle controls. It has caused numerous rollaways and even deaths. So why did FCA make the switch?
The monostable electronic gear shifter is Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) vehicles has been disastrous. The confusing design is responsible for hundreds of rollaway incidents and widely believed to have caused actor Anton Yelchin’s death.
FCA and Dodge changed the design for newer cars, but it was too little, too late for many 2012-2014 Charger owners.
Jeep’s Monostable Design
While most things in cars are going electronic these days, it doesn’t always mean they’re getting better. Jeep is one of a number of automakers to experiment with electronic gear shifters instead of the traditional shifter lever with a classic, embedded-in-your-muscle-memory “PRNDL” (park, reverse, neutral, drive, low) gear order.
Since electronic gear shifters are no longer mechanically tied to the transmission, automakers aren’t tied to classic designs. That means gear shifters can be made smaller, and moved for more “important” marketable things like extra cup holders and wireless charging pads.
FCA and Jeep went with a monostable lever that may look traditional, but has some very unintuitive features:
- The shifter is monostable, which means whenever it’s it always returns to center after a gear change. That’s a big change from traditional shifters.
- The shifter has a visual indication of the gear, but the lever itself lacks tactile feedback making it hard to feel which gear you’re in.
- It strays from the traditional “PRNDL” gear order that has been standard for so many years. Instead drivers have to push up to get into reverse, down for drive, up for down, cats for dogs, etc. It’s just not intuitive.
The result? Owners complain that the clicks between gears are barely noticeable and the overall design is confusing. That’s resulted in hundreds of reports of cars rolling away because the owner thought they were in park, when they were really still in neutral.
The terrible design forced FCA to release a video so people could learn how to shift gears in their vehicles. It all just feels so … unnecessary.
Why Wasn’t There a Fail-Safe In Place?
BMW and Mercedes have fail-safe modes in place that automatically put the car in park if the car is in neutral and the door is opened or the keyless ignition is pressed.
FCA, meanwhile, just threw some chimes in your direction. Jonathon Linkov, Consumer Report’s deputy auto editor, wonders why more wasn’t done to alert drivers.
”It is confusing and odd and then it doesn’t have any safety mechanism. What we would like to see is that there is a fail-safe so at the end of the day you don’t have a problem with cars going to launch forward, roll backward, move in some way that the consumer’s not expecting it.”
NHTSA Investigations into e-Shift Design Lead to a Recall
In August 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into the gear shifters, but limited their scope to the 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. By the following February, NHTSA expanded their investigation to include the 2012-2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300.
NHTSA says to date, there are 306 incidents of Jeep Grand Cherokees rolling away after owners believed the SUVs were shifted into “Park.” The 306 rollaway incidents resulted in 117 alleged crashes and 28 injuries. Those injuries include pelvic fractures, broken kneecaps, a ruptured bladder, busted ribs, sprained knees, trauma to the legs, lacerations to the face and various other injuries.
A Massive Recall for Rollaways
Feeling the heat from NHTSA, FCA decided to recall all the investigated vehicles in April 2016.
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.
Read more about the recall and suggested fix on ChryslerProblems.com.
Actor Anton Yeltsin Killed in Accident Involving the e-Shift Design
The rollaway problem was thrust into the spotlight shortly after the announced recall when actor Anton Yelchin was killed by his Jeep Cherokee when it rolled away and pinned him.
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 Center for Auto Safety called Yelchin’s death an example of incompetence by federal regulators and automakers in discovering, fixing, and alerting owners of potentially deadly defects.
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.
A Change in Design
Even though they had closed their investigation, NHTSA later announced FCA’s electronic shifters are just poorly designed:
”appear to violate several basic design guidelines for vehicle controls”
FCA changed from a monostable to a polystable design in 2016, and gave other vehicles completely new gear shift assemblies. For example, the 2017 Grand Cherokee sports a traditional shift lever, and the Durango and Chrysler 300 use rotary-dial shifters.
The gear shifter in question can be found in 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 2012-2014 Dodge Chargers, and 2012-2014 Chrysler 300 vehicles.