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What's so confusing about the gear shifters in some Fiat-Chrysler vehicles

Jun 21, 2016

The accident that killed actor Anton Yelchin on Sunday might not have been a fluke, but rather, the result of a common mistake that has confused car owners and resulted in the recall of more that 800,000 vehicles manufactured by Fiat-Chrysler. 

Though the vehicles weren't defective, the manufacturer of the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee had recalled that model and several others simply because the gearshift mechanism was confusing to consumers. Reports say drivers have had trouble discerning whether they'd left their car in park or neutral, resulting in cars rolling after unsuspecting drivers had exited the vehicle.

How can that happen? This video from Consumerist explains: 

Essentially, the shifting mechanism isn't a traditional lever with different positions for different modes, like drive, park or neutral. Instead, it's an electronic shifter that requires the user to briefly push forward to put the car in reverse. Putting the car in park requires pushing it into the 'reverse' position and holding it there. 

This safety report, submitted by Chrysler in May to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, lists the number of potentially involved vehicles at 811,586. From the report:

FCA US has determined that the existing strategies built into these vehicles to deter drivers from exiting the vehicle after failing to put the transmission into PARK have not stopped some from doing so. 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. 

The company said in a statement that it extends its condolences to Yelchin's family, but that any speculation about the cause of his death prior to a completed investigation is premature.