The investigation into Sunday’s death of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin, 27, in a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolling accident continues. But signs point to a problem that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has had for years with its electronic automatic gear shifters — namely that some of its cars have shifters that can leave drivers believing they’ve been put safely into park. Instead, the cars can roll away, causing accidents, injuries and even death.
And while the problem vexing more than 800,000 recent Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs, Dodge Charger muscle cars and Chrysler 300 luxury sedans isn’t widespread across the industry, the increasing use of electronics for crucial vehicle functions is posing new challenges for automakers, and new risks for drivers.
“There’s this rush to electrify every aspect of a vehicle,” said Byron Bloch, an auto safety expert with 40 years of experience inspecting vehicles and testifying on accidents. “When you’re trying to get 20 computer systems in a car all trying to communicate with each other, it’s asking for myriads of new problems.”
Instead of a careless mechanical engineering miscalculation or a dangerous assembly component, a new family of problems is arising as automakers replace traditionally analog functions — like the levers that open car doors — with digital counterparts that can be counterintuitive for owners. Last year, International Business Times wrote about James Roger, 72, who succumbed to heat exhaustion in his 2007 Chevrolet Corvette after the car’s electronic door opening button failed. Like many other Corvette owners, he didn’t know about the emergency manual door release located at the floor of the car.
A similar counterintuitive situation may have caused Yelchin’s death; the young actor might have been unaware of the particular and unintuitive way the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s e-shifter operated.
His 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee was part of a recall issued by Fiat Chrysler to fix the so-called monostable gear selector. Owners have complained that it’s difficult to tell when the shifter, which is connected to an electronic system, has actually sent the signal directing the car to move the automatic transmission into park. The problem is so acute that Fiat Chrysler has identified 41 injuries and hundreds of accidents. Yelchin, who was crushed when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled back and pinned him against a brick mailbox, could be the first recorded death related to the problem.
The company issued a recall of 1.1 million of the affected cars earlier this year, including more than 800,000 in the U.S., and on Thursday released a software patch that it says will fix the electronic gear shifter. But car owners are angry. The company is facing a class-action lawsuit charging it concealed the problem. (Fiat Chrysler has declined to comment on the issue.)
Kevin Borg, an associate professor at James Madison University in Virginia who specializes in automotive history, told IBT in an interview last year that the addition of so many electronic-control systems in modern vehicles has led to what he calls technological opacity — that layer of software and hardware automakers are wedging between drivers and the mechanical functions of their cars.
And Bloch says this increased “electronification” of vehicles is only going to create more issues in the future as vehicles become more computerized. “A lot of this has to do with this push to self-driving cars,” he said. “This problem [with the electronic gear shifter] is a preview of the kind of technology that will be in self-driving cars, and in the future I think we will see many more problems related to this.”
Here’s a list of affected vehicles. The recall covers 811,586 units in the U.S. and 1.1 million worldwide.
* 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
* 2012-2014 Dodge Charger.
* 2012-2014 Chrysler 300.