The Mercedes Sprinter vans used by Amazon to make deliveries have been falling victim to one of the worst feelings in automotive history: A failure to properly park, in some cases even with the parking brake activated.
This new report comes from Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., and it paints a scary picture for any delivery driver:
In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a rollaway investigation into the Mercedes Sprinter vans with e-shifters that automatically move the transmission into Park when the driver leaves the seat. Used by Amazon’s delivery service providers, these vans have been sprinting away – with the shift indicator showing Park, and sometimes with the parking brake applied, too. Just before Christmas, Mercedes delivered a temporary fix with a Grinch-y rant against drivers. But, the preliminary evidence points to a long-established mechanical source of rollaway – a defective park pawl. Blame the driver is the manufacturers’ rollaway go-to, but will it make the investigation go away?
Amazon’s fleet largely consists of three different styles of van, with the Mercedes Sprinter cargo van being one of the more common. The Sprinter’s failure to adequately park, though, has caused serious issues for delivery drivers.
One YouTube video illustrates this problem quite clearly — though it’s important to note that the title of the video places blame on the delivery driver:
There’s no more horrifying feeling than watching your vehicle leave without you — especially when that vehicle isn’t actually even yours and when it’s filled with thousands of dollars of cargo.
As the Safety Research & Strategies report notes, Amazon drivers get into and out of their vans upwards of 200 times a day. That makes it all the more important that those vans can handle frequent stops. But the Sprinter vans can fail to park for a lot of different reasons: mechanical failure, electrical failure, or design-induced human failure.
From the report:
The 2019 Mercedes Sprinter van appeared to deliver – with an electronic shifter that provides one of the most comprehensive automatic shift-to-Park algorithms The Safety Record, which has pored over scores of service literature and owner’s manuals, and examined dozens of vehicles, has ever seen. (We’ll get to that in a moment) An electronic shifter replaces the mechanical connection between the gear selector and the transmission with software that sends electronic signals from the gear selector interface to an electronic control module which relays the request to the transmission. In a 2019 Mercedes Sprinter, the shifter is a steering column mounted stalk behind the steering wheel that is pressed up or down, depending on the gear. Park is a button on the end of the lever.
Amazon Sprinter vans have an auto-shift-to-park function that automatically moves the electronic shifter to the Park position, if the driver attempts to exit without first securing Park, regardless of whether the engine is on or off. Auto-shift-to-Park features first emerged as a safety measure on passenger vehicles with e-shifters that used non-standard shift controls – like buttons, rotary knobs, and Monostable stick selectors that always return to the center position after gear selection. These new shifter designs lack the mechanical detents and consistent PRNDL sequence that most drivers were used to. This has led to drivers misjudging the gear position and exiting the vehicle without securing it in Park, followed by NHTSA investigations and recalls to implement a failsafe, such as an automatic shift-to-park feature.
Further, if the Sprinter van is not in Park and the driver opens the door, or unbuckles the seat belt or gets out of the seat, the e-shifter moves to Park. That covers all of the components of driver exit. That last condition – driver leaves seat – is determined by a driver seat occupant detection sensor, a design feature that is atypical for in these designs.
In theory, no driver should be able to exit the vehicle without the van being parked. There should be no case where a driver’s van just happens to roll away because the driver failed to engage ‘park.’ This is a flaw in the machinery, but the driver has consistently been placed at fault for these problems through reports of negligence, even though it comes directly from faults with the mechanical systems in place:
According to David Bizzak, a Monroeville, PA-based mechanical engineer who has examined the failure mechanism in several Sprinters, the park pawl, which locks the transmission to prevent vehicle movement doesn’t consistently maintain engagement in the ring gear. This design was intended for use on lighter vehicles, but the heavier Sprinter vans appear to put greater forces on the tapered park pawl, and that added friction can force the pawl out of engagement when under load.
The fault, then, lies both with Mercedes and with Amazon. It’s up to Mercedes to build a Sprinter capable of handling the heavy delivery loads the van is theoretically supposed to achieve — and it’s up to Amazon to hold Mercedes accountable rather than faulting drivers.