NHTSA Safety Probe Involves 856,000 Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep Shifters

Auto designers are always looking for ways to maximize interior space, and that includes thinking outside the box when it comes to reinterpreting the control surfaces we've all become so accustomed to in modern vehicles. At Fiat Chrysler, in recent years this has meant transmuting the traditional transmission shifter stalk into a smaller selector that frees up significant room on the center console by avoiding a direct mechanical linkage with the transmission in favor of an electronic connection.

Unfortunately, the actual operation of this new shifter left a lot to be desired – so much so that after roughly two years of production FCA made major changes to the design. It seems like the company's engineers weren't quick enough, however, as the NHTSA has opened an investigation into a number of crashes that have been linked to the 'counterintuitive' nature of the shifter itself.

These gear selectors, which were installed in the Chrysler 300, the Dodge Charger, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee between 2012 and 2015 (depending on the model), had the unusual characteristic of popping back to the center position rather than moving forward or backward in a notched pattern when choosing Drive, Park, Neutral, or Reverse. This meant that one had to pull the selector back for Drive and push it forward for Reverse or Park – but the lack of détentes, especially when trying to hit Reverse without accidentally parking the transmission – made it difficult to know intuitively which gear you were actually in.

I've personally complained about the shifter since it first hit the market – and I'm not the only one. As I noted above, the outcry was loud enough to convince FCA to go to a design that offers mechanical feedback while maintaining the same look as the original shifter for most of the offending models. Still, with almost three years on the market there was plenty of time for accidents and injuries to mount due to the confusing shifter implementation: 121 crashes and 30 injuries according to ABC News.

The majority of incidents involved owners getting out of their vehicles while the automobile in question was still in gear, which led to roll-away situations and, one imagines, absolute havoc. Chrysler claims that a chime sounds when the door is open and the ignition is still on, but given how many warning sounds we are exposed to in modern vehicles, it's easy enough to see how this could be missed.

It's frightening to step out of a car or truck and have it start moving on you, especially if you can't move fast enough to get your foot on the brake and bring things back under control. Even worse was the discovery by the NHTSA that the push button start / stop feature wouldn't kill the ignition if the vehicle was in gear, which meant some of those who were injured not only thought they were in Park, but also thought their automobile had shut down, too.

856,000 vehicles are now being examined by the NHTSA probe, which has expanded from the original 408,000 Grand Cherokees that were originally included in the investigation when it began in August of 2015.