NHTSA Probe Into FCA's Electronic Shifter Tallies 68 injuries, 266 crashes

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CARS.COM — A report by federal regulators out this week links 68 injuries and 266 crashes to a confusing electronic automatic transmission shifter in some Fiat Chrysler Automobiles cars and SUVs.

Related: Editors Sound Off on Electronic Gear Shifters

That’s the same fly-by-wire shifter being investigated in the June 19 death of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin, who was crushed in an apparent rollaway incident involving his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. That death still is being investigated by Los Angeles police and FCA, and is mentioned but not included in the report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on its FCA shifter investigation.

That investigation, begun last August and expanded in February, now is closed following FCA’s recall of about 812,000 vehicles in the U.S. for the shifter, which works as intended but has been found to have a poor design that allows the driver to easily exit without having the transmission in Park, increasing the risk of a rollaway.

While the shifter activates lights in two places indicating the gear selected, the shifter itself just toggles forward and back, returning to the center after each selection. There also is a chime alert if the driver opens the door with engine still on without selecting Park. NHTSA said in its report that while the shifter “has the familiar appearance of a conventional console mechanical gearshift assembly, it has an unfamiliar movement that does not provide the tactile or visual feedback that drivers are accustomed to receiving from conventional shifters.”

While not admitting a defect, FCA announced a recall at NHTSA’s urging in April and has developed software that provides more alerts and will automatically put the transmission in Park if the driver’s door is opened. FCA is now sending out notices to owners that the update is available for installation by dealers. At the time of the recall, it had estimated that devising a fix would take until late this year, but the recall since has been accelerated.

Until the fix is made, FCA’s recall notice warns drivers to take extra care to be sure the vehicles are in Park before getting out. The recalled vehicles include the model-year 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans, and 2014-15 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.

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Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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