After crashes that have caused everything from a ruptured bladder to a fractured kneecap, the Feds are investigating the tricky shift levers of late model Jeep Grand Cherokees, Dodge Chargers, and some Chrysler 300s. That’s a total of 856,000 vehicles, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. And, in case you’ve never driven one, the automatic gear selector doesn’t work like that of a traditional transmission, where PRND are aligned with detents for each gear. Instead, the selector is spring-loaded and only moves fore and aft, always returning to the center position once in gear. To get into Drive, the shifter must be pulled rearward; to select Reverse, pushed three-quarters of the way forward; for Park, pushed and held all the way forward.
An additional indicator on the instrument cluster displays which gear has been selected. It’ll also chime to warn the driver if, say, the car is still in gear when they switch off the ignition, or if they’ve failed to shut off the car and they’re trying to do so while still in gear.
The official NHTSA investigation, which has been escalated to an “engineering analysis,” one step shy of a recall, says 28 crashes have resulted in serious injury from drivers exiting their cars with the engine running and without the car in Park, resulting in “unattended vehicle rollaway.” A few owners who’ve been run over by their own cars.
NHTSA’s initial investigation shows a tally of “306 incidents of vehicle rollaway following intended shifts to Park in the 2014-2015 Grand Cherokee.” The Feds say the biggest failing is that drivers who leave vehicles running intentionally don’t get feedback to indicate the Jeep isn’t in Park, resulting in rollaway.
In a sign that Fiat-Chrysler saw this coming, newer models have gone back to a more conventional gear selector.