Why the Fiat Electronic Gear Shifter Has Federal Regulators Concerned

Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) examine dozens of motor vehicles every month for specific defects. When flawed equipment is discovered, the defect may spur a vehicle recall and stir up a lot of negative attention in the press; we’ve seen that recently with both the Takata airbag defect and Toyota seatbelt issues.

But important stories about vehicle defects are sometimes lost among the flood of other news reports. Today, we’re going to look at the concerns raised by the electronic gear shifters made by the ZF Group and installed in certain Fiat-owned Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles.

The Problem

A gear shifter is designed to change the car’s gears in order to “shift” the vehicle into park, drive, reverse, or neutral. The NHTSA feels that the gear shifter in question may have a design flaw that causes dangerous confusion for drivers, making it more likely for them to incorrectly shift gears and cause an accident.

The NHTSA voiced its concerns by releasing documents that stated: “Testing…indicates that operation of the (electronic) shifter is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.” It further stated that when not placed in the correct gear, vehicles have the potential to roll back once the driver has exited the car and no longer has any control—thus increasing the chance of an accident.

The Proposed Solutions

As of March 2016, the gear shifters have only caused suspicion and investigative interest by the NHTSA—no recall has been established. The FCA Group has argued that when the shifter is used correctly it isn’t dangerous, and therefore any problems stem from user errors rather than a safety defect.

Based on its concerns and investigations so far, the NHTSA is beginning to intensify its probe in order to ensure these shifters are completely inspected for consumer safety. It is seeking to investigate the “scope, frequency, and safety-related consequences of the alleged defect,” and has reported that it has found 100 crashes and over a dozen injuries associated with problems resulting from the electronic gear shifter. As such, the agency is prepared to do the following in the name of safety:

  • Expand safety investigations. The NHTSA has upgraded its investigation into the ease of usability for these electronic gear shifters to include more than 856,000 Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles. The preliminary investigation last August included shifters on 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees. Today, the agency said the investigation will now include Chrysler 300 sedans from 2012–2014 and the Dodge Charger for 2012–2014.
  • Question design parameters. The investigations themselves are being used to urge automakers to change the way their cars and car elements are designed.
  • Push the recall envelope. The agency is upgrading how it’s referring to the investigation and calling it an “engineering analysis,” stopping just short of suggesting it is a demand for a recall.

Your Thoughts

Considering the NHTSA’s interest and the potential danger involved, do you think a simple investigation is enough to protect those who are driving around with the questionable shifter? Should a recall be warranted as a precautionary measure, or would it be too extreme? In the comment section provided, please let us know your thoughts and concerns on this safety issue—we’d love to know how you feel.
 

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