Confusing Gear Shifter Leads to Major Headaches for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

July 28, 2016

As auto accident attorneys, we know that cars can kill. Recently a young, up-and-coming celebrity recently died alone at his Los Angeles home. Upon hearing those basic details, many people just assumed that it was yet another tale of Hollywood excess gone horribly wrong. However, what actually happened to “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin last month could have happened to anyone that drives a vehicle equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission and a monostable gear shifter. Currently, that’s affecting

2012-2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans, 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs, and two models of luxury brand Maserati.

So, what happened? It is believed that Yelchin was standing behind his parked 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee in his driveway when the SUV started rolling backward, ultimately pinning him against a brick mailbox. Unable to move, his official cause of death is listed as blunt trauma asphyxia. The problem is thought to lie with the monostable electronic shifter, and while this fatality may be the first linked to the device, it was already the subject of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation going back to August 2015.

To date, the NHTSA has collected 686 complaints linked to the shifter, including 266 accidents and 68 injuries. The majority of the incidents are thought to have resulted from vehicles rolling away when owners engaged the wrong gear and exited the vehicle, believing they had placed it in “Park.” NHTSA determined that “the monostable shifter is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.” Essentially, the monostable gear selector goes through the normal routine of “Park,” “Reverse,” “Neutral,” and “Drive,” but always returns to the center position. Drivers are told what gear they are in by indicator lights rather than feeling placement of the shifter in the intended slot.

In April, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) recalled 1.1 million vehicles over concerns that the e-transmission could lead them to roll away once the driver had exited. Yelchin’s SUV was part of the recall, though it isn’t clear whether he had received notice of it. In June, the recall was expanded to include more than 13,000 2014 Maserati Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans in the U.S.

FCA’s solution involves “a software patch that sounds audible chimes when the driver attempts to exit the vehicle without moving the shifter into “Park,” in addition to software designed to prevent the vehicle from moving in certain other circumstances when it is in “Drive” or “Reverse.” Some other car makers that use this type of shifter have an automatic override that puts the vehicle in “Park” if the door is open. Interestingly, FCA changed the design of the gear selector in later versions of the affected models in part because of the widespread confusion over how electronic shifter use differed from the standard gearbox.

If you have any questions about this topic, or if you believe that a defective product may be responsible for your injury or that of a loved one, the injury attorneys at Wapner Newman can help. For almost 40 years, we have been the trusted advocates for countless personal injury victims and their families throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We offer risk-free consultations and work on a contingency basis, which means that we do not require you to pay any fees until we have secured a recovery on your behalf. We encourage you to contact us today by calling 1-800-529-6600 or filling out a free case evaluation form.