Detroit, Michigan - Electronic gear shifters on some newer Fiat Chrysler SUVs and cars are so confusing that drivers have got out of them with the engine running and while they are still in gear, causing crashes and some serious injuries.
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 - after more than 100 crashes and a dozen injuries, mostly in Jeep Grand Cherokees - but stopped short of seeking a recall.
Investigators found that operating the centre console shift lever “is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection”. The agency then upgraded the probe to an engineering analysis, which is a step closer to a recall. NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said it would continue to gather information and seek a recall if necessary.
The investigation could determine just how much automakers will be able to 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.
The probe now covers more than 856 000 vehicles including the 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans with 3.6-litre V6 engines from 2012 to 2014.
In these models the driver pulls the shift lever forward or backward to select gears, but the shifter doesn't move along a track like it does in most cars.
The cars sound a chime and issue a dashboard warning message if the driver's door is opened while the transmission is not in Park, but the gearshift doesn’t have notches that match up with the gear you want to shift into; it moves back to a central position after the driver picks a gear.
Investigators also found that the push-button start-stop feature doesn't allow the engine to shut down unless the transmission is in park, increasing the risk of the car rolling away after the driver gets out.
“This function does not protect drivers who intentionally leave the engine running,” they wrote, “or drivers who do not recognise that the engine continues to run after an attempted shut-off.”
Cars rolling off unintentionally could injure the driver or pedestrians in the path of the vehicles, the agency said. Thus far, the investigation has found 314 complaints, 121 crashes and 30 injuries. Three drivers reported fractured pelvic bones, while four others needed to be hospitalised with a ruptured bladder, fractured kneecap, broken ribs, and severe leg trauma, according to the documents.
Fiat Chrysler says it is co-operating in the investigation. It changed the shifters so they function more like people are used to in the 2016 Grand Cherokee and 2015 Chargers and 300 sedans, but said it did so to increase customer satisfaction and not because of safety concerns.
When the investigation began in August, it covered only 408 000 Grand Cherokees from 2014 and 2015. At first investigators began looking at whether the shifters were malfunctioning and failing to go into Park on the drivers' commands. But in later documents, the safety agency seems to be focused on the way the shifters operate.
One driver, in Atkinson, New Hampshire, complained that in November 2015 her 2014 Grand Cherokee began moving in reverse with no driver inside. As it rolled across the street, into a mailbox and up a driveway she tried to get back into the Jeep but was knocked to the ground and it rolled over her legs and injured her. The car eventually stopped after hitting a fence.
“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.”