Electronic gear shifters on some newer Fiat Chrysler SUVs and cars are so confusing that drivers have exited the vehicles with the engines running and while they are still in gear, causing crashes and serious injuries, U.S. safety investigators have determined.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in documents posted during the weekend, has doubled the number of vehicles involved in an investigation of the problem, but it stopped short of seeking a recall. The agency found more than 100 crashes and over a dozen injuries, mostly in Jeep Grand Cherokees.
Agency tests found that operating the center console shift lever "is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection," investigators wrote in the documents. They upgraded the probe to an engineering analysis, which is a step closer to a recall. NHTSA will continue to gather information and seek a recall if necessary, a spokesman said.
The investigation could determine just how much automakers can change the way cars operate when they introduce new technology, and how far they can stray from conventional ways of controlling vehicles that drivers are accustomed to.
Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, expects more problems and investigations as automakers continue to roll out new electronic controls that are unfamiliar to drivers. "I think the manufacturers need to be much more responsible as they try these new technologies," he said.
The government's probe now covers more than 856,000 vehicles including the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV from the 2014 and 2015 model years and the 2012 through 2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans with 3.6-liter V6 engines.
In the vehicles, drivers pull the shift lever forward or backward to select gears and the shifter doesn't move along a track like in most cars. A light shows which gear is selected, but to get from Drive to Park, drivers must push the lever forward three times. The gearshift does not have notches that match up with the gear you want to shift into, and it moves back to a centered position after the driver picks a gear.
The vehicles sound a chime and issue a dashboard warning if the driver's door is opened while they are not in Park. But investigators found that the push-button start-stop feature doesn't shut off the engine if the vehicles aren't in Park, increasing the risk of the vehicles rolling away after drivers have exited.
"This function does not protect drivers who intentionally leave the engine running or drivers who do not recognize that the engine continues to run after an attempted shut-off," investigators wrote.
Thus far, the investigation has found 314 complaints, 121 crashes and 30 injuries from the problem. Three drivers reported fractured pelvic bones, while four others needed to be hospitalized with a ruptured bladder, fractured kneecap, or severe leg trauma.
Fiat Chrysler says it is cooperating in the probe. The company changed the shifters in the 2016 Grand Cherokee and 2015 Charger and 300 sedans so they function more like people are used to. But FCA said it did so to increase customer satisfaction and not for safety concerns.
One driver, in Atkinson, New Hampshire, complained that in November of last year, her 2014 Grand Cherokee began traveling in reverse with no driver inside. The SUV crossed a street, crashed into a mailbox and rolled up a driveway. The driver wrote that she tried to get back into the Jeep but was knocked to the ground and it rolled over her legs and injured her. The Jeep eventually stopped after hitting a fence. Drivers are not identified in the NHTSA complaint database.
"The shift knob is a real problem," wrote another driver from Enumclaw, Washington, who reported two unintentional roll-away incidents in a 2015 Grand Cherokee. "I am not a complainer, however this is a major safety issue. It terrifies me to drive this vehicle."
Fiat Chrysler is not alone with the tricky shifters. Fisher says BMW and Mercedes-Benz have similar gearshifts. He said the government has a thin line to walk between stifling innovation and keeping people safe.
"I think the best thing for consumers isn't that legislation comes," he said. "The best thing is that automakers really do not start adding features that are really confusing to people and cause accidents."