Fiat Chrysler has been in the news lately, and not for good reasons. Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin was killed this weekend when his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee—a vehicle among a recall of more than 1.1 million cars for a rollaway problem linked to the gear shifter—reportedly rolled down his driveway and crushed him. As investigators work to determine if the shifter contributed to the incident, I found a Jeep with one to examine the issue.
The shifter, called the “Monostable” shifter, was designed by German supplier ZF, but Fiat Chrysler was responsible for integrating it into various Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler vehicles and developing safeguard mechanisms.
The mushroom-shaped unit does not slide up and down entirely the way a traditional automatic shifter does, but rather can be moved back or forward while changing gears, after which it then returns to center.
The shifter has been cited in numerous complaints on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s database. The safety agency said earlier this year:
...operation of the Monostable shifter is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.
To see just how “poor” the tactile and visual feedback was, I hopped behind the wheel of a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee equipped with the “Monostable” electronic shifter. Here’s what I learned:
To shift from drive into park, the driver simply applies the brakes, clicks the lock button on the shifter, and moves the shifter all the way up, three “detents” until the light on the shifter and dashboard read “P” for park. Then the shifter returns to center.
I found that the tactile feedback, in the form of detents, was very subtle compared to what most drivers are probably used to, so the difference between two detents (and the shifter in reverse) wasn’t much different than the feeling of three detents (and the shifter in park).
I also thought the tiny shift position lights on the shifter and gauge cluster didn’t do a great job at grabbing my attention, though it’s worth noting that when I opened the door, a chime did sound and the gauge cluster warned me that the vehicle was not in park.
Is it possible that I might not notice those messages if I were in a hurry? Maybe. Even as an experienced driver, Jeep owner, and someone who pays more attention to cars and how they work than most, I don’t find it hard at all to accidentally shift into the wrong gear here.
Fiat Chrysler has voluntarily recalled vehicles with this shifter design, which means it opted to do the recall without being ordered to by NHTSA. So what did the recall entail? At the moment, not much. While the company doesn’t yet have a technical solution in place, it has sent notices to owners, teaching them how to properly use the shifter. Here’s a brochure Fiat Chrysler sent to owners along with their recall notices:
The company also his this how-to video on YouTube showing how the shifter functions:
And in late May, Fiat Chrysler sent out this information on the timing of a technical fix:
“The timing to develop the software updates required to remedy this situation has been accelerated. FCA now anticipates having the software updates required to remedy the above vehicles no later than July/August of 2016.
“The software updates required to remedy this situation are presently not available. An interim letter was mailed to all involved customer stating “FCA is working to finalize a remedy by the 4th quarter of 2016.””
It’s also worth noting that Fiat Chrysler isn’t the only company that has used this type of shifter. The Audi A8's shifter, for example, is a similar design, though Audi says it has a safety mechanism that activates the electronic park brake if the driver tries to exit with the car in gear. Fiat Chrysler’s vehicles covered by the recall have mechanical foot-operated park brakes, so there is no such safety feature in place.
Clearly, it’s a design with some issues, especially since the newer Jeep Grand Cherokees use an entirely different shifter. But time will tell if it had anything to do with this young actor’s death.
Note: In the video at 02:31, I accidentally said “neutral” where I meant “reverse.”