Over the course of the last six months, much of the media coverage and discussions on auto safety have understandably been dedicated to the massive Takata airbag recall, which has grown to cover millions of vehicles across the U.S.
This may soon be changing, however, following the tragic death of Anton Yelchin, a rising television and film star known for his diverse body of work. The young actor was killed last weekend after exiting his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which rolled down his steep driveway, and fatally pinned him against a reinforced security gate and mailbox.
Shockingly, reports indicate that Yelchin’s Jeep Grand Cherokee was among the more than 1.1 million vehicles recalled by Fiat Chrysler back in April over the rollaway risk posed by its rather unconventional gearshift system.
What’s the background on this recall?
After receiving numerous complaints and reports of rollaway-related injuries in February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a formal investigation into Fiat Chrysler’s electronic gearshift. Just two months later, the agency indicated that its internal testing revealed the electronic gearshift system was “not intuitive and provide[d] poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”
At the NHTSA’s behest, Fiat Chrysler announced the aforementioned formal recall of 1.1 million vehicles, including Jeep Grand Cherokees, Chrysler 300s and Dodge Chargers.
Why exactly is this gearshift so problematic?
The problem, according to the NHTSA, is that the electronic gearshift is more akin to a joystick than a traditional gear shift. Specifically, the driver doesn’t move a shifter along a gate path and leave it in place, rather the shifter returns to the center after gear selection.
This, in turn, requires the driver to visually affirm that they are in the correct gear and could cause confusion. Furthermore, it could cause rollaway accidents, as people mistakenly believe the vehicle is in park.
How many incidents have been linked to this defect?
While the investigation into the exact cause of Yelchin’s death is still ongoing, Fiat Chrysler has previously linked the gearshift to 700 incidents involving drivers wrongly believing their vehicle was in park.
Breaking the numbers down further, it’s been connected to 308 reports of property damage, 212 auto accidents and 41 injuries.
Is there a fix?
For its part, Fiat Chrysler indicated in a recent letter to dealers that it was aiming to have the necessary software upgrades — which would automatically put the vehicle in park whenever the driver exits the vehicle — by July or August.
In the meantime, both Fiat Chrysler and the NHTSA are urging owners to be extra vigilant about verifying that their affected vehicle is in park before exiting and to always use the parking brake.
Please remember that if you have been seriously injured or lost a loved one because of a dangerous auto defect that you have rights and you have options for seeking justice.