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SHIFTING GEARS

Are shifters getting too complicated?

Actor's death puts spotlight on newfangled formats


Anton Yelchin's death focused attention on 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees' shifters.

The death of 27-year-old Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin has again thrust an auto recall story into the national spotlight.

It has also brought scrutiny to a once-simple function that has grown more complicated in recent years: shifting a vehicle with an automatic transmission into drive or reverse and back to park or neutral.

As the illustration below shows, vehicles ranging from the Honda Pilot to the Mercedes-Benz S class have evolved from mechanical control to electronic. "Shifting" is typically directed by fingertip touches on dials, stalks, levers and buttons.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees were built with what's known as a monostable shifter. The shifter typically rests in the middle of three positions. The driver directs the shifter fore and aft to cycle electronically through park, reverse, neutral, drive and low.

FCA and California investigators are studying what caused Yelchin's 2015 Grand Cherokee to roll backward on his sloped driveway. He was found by friends outside his vehicle with the engine running at 1 a.m. on June 19, fatally pinned against a gatepost.

In April, FCA recalled more than 811,000 Grand Cherokees from the 2014-15 model years and 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans in the United States equipped with monostable shifters. On Thursday, June 23, FCA added 13,092 2014 Maserati Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans to the recall list.

By the end of last week, FCA had sent its dealers a software upgrade designed to ensure that Grand Cherokees in a gear other than park would not move if the driver's-side door was open. FCA also would install additional warnings to alert drivers that their vehicles were not in park.

Earlier, FCA told owners to read their manuals to familiarize themselves more fully with how the shift mechanism is intended to work.

Familiarity hasn't always been a challenge in shifting an automobile into drive or park. But style, electronics and the battle for space on the dash and center console have changed the shifter's shape and the way it is operated.

Jeep Grand Cherokee » 2014 and 2015 models used what Fiat Chrysler calls a "monostable" shifter that has just three positions and changes gears when it is pushed forward or pulled backward. The shifter was also used in the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. NHTSA has received reports of 121 crashes that may be related to the shifter and transmission.
Mercedes S class » To shift into drive, the driver pushes down on the stubby gearshift lever. Reverse is up. Park is activated by a pushing the button on the end of the stalk.
Lincoln MKC » The 2016 model uses buttons on the dash to shift the transmission. It's Ford Motor's first use of buttons to shift since the 1958 Edsel.
BMW 3 series » BMW shifters have a button on the side that must be pressed to move the car out of park. Then the shifter is pushed forward for reverse or pulled backward for drive. Park is engaged by pressing a button on the leading edge of the shifter.
Land Rover Range Rover Evoque » Like most Jaguar Land Rover vehicles, the Evoque uses a simple rotary dial to change gears. In the 2016 Jaguar XJ, the dial raises when the ignition key is turned on and lowers when it is turned off.
Honda Pilot » On the 2016 model, the driver selects from buttons of different shapes and sizes. To shift into reverse, a button must be pulled up. To engage drive or park, buttons must be pressed.
-- Text by Richard Truett

One consequence of replacing the old-style mechanical linkage from the shifter to the transmission with smaller, faster and more precise electronic systems is that drivers no longer shift intuitively. Nor can they seamlessly transition between brands of cars as they once did.

While Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 102 requires the gear sequence -- known as PRNDL (PRIN'-duhl) -- to be the same in all vehicles, no rules govern how a shifter must look and perform.

FCA replaced monostable shifters with electronic, gated devices that provide a mechanical feel beginning with the Charger and 300 in 2015 and the Grand Cherokee in 2016.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in April that it had received more than 300 complaints, including reports of 121 crashes, of vehicles that had rolled away, some striking buildings, drivers or other cars. FCA said at the time it was aware of at least 41 injuries potentially related to the design.

Yelchin's was the first death reported to be linked to the defect.

NHTSA, which upgraded a probe into the rollaway injuries and complaints in February, said in April that the shifter was "clearly a safety issue" leading to hundreds of crashes and dozens of injuries.

The updated software package sent to FCA dealers requires technicians to reprogram the vehicle's power control module, transmission control module, radio frequency hub and instrument panel cluster.

Larry P. Vellequette contributed to this report.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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