Death of Star Trek Actor Highlights Concerns About Faulty Electronic Shifters

Anton Yelchin reportedly driving recalled Jeep Grand Cherokee.

by on Jun.20, 2016

Actor Anton Yelchin was best known for his role as a young Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot.

It could take months to complete the investigation into the accidental death of Anton Yelchin, the 27-year-old actor best known for his role in several recent Star Trek movies – but it appears that the vehicle involved in his death was a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, an SUV recently recalled because of problems with its electronic shifter.

A Los Angeles coroner’s spokesman said the cause of death was “blunt force asphyxia” in which the actor was pinned against a gate at his home. The vehicle appears to have been one of the models involved in a large recall initiated by Jeep parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in April.

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FCA recalled three different models — covering a total of 1.1 million vehicles — following an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency found the shifter could confuse motorists by not giving clear back as to what gear the automatic transmission was in.

That wasn’t the first time NHTSA has had to address the issue of faulty gear shifters. There have been problems with a number of mechanical shifters over the years, some slipping out of the Park position unintentionally. But experts are growing particularly concerned about the newest generation of electronic shifters that are being described as “unintuitive” in their design and operation.

Federal safety regulators recalled three FCA models, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee, due to problems with the transmission shifting mechanism.

“The whole electronic shifter issue is a real concern right now,” said David Cole, director-emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research, or CAR, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “People may think they’ve shifted the car into Park but it’s not.”

(Millions more vehicles recalled due to deadly Takata airbag defect. Click Here for more.)

Traditional shifters have a direct mechanical connection to the transmission. The shift lever is designed to move forward or back into a dedicated position for each gear. There have been problems over the years with faulty shifters that could inadvertently slip from one gear to another, with recalls involving a wide range of manufacturers including Ford, General Motors and Nissan, among others.

But the problem of mis-shifting has become notably worse, according to experts, as the industry has migrated to so-called shift-by-wire, or electronic shift systems. Here, there is only an electrical link between transmission and shifter.

There are a number of potential advantages. Electronic shifters can safe space. And they’re lighter, something that contributes to efforts to improve fuel economy. They can adopt non-traditional forms. Jaguar is one of several makers to adopt a rotary dial shifter. Lincoln uses push buttons on the instrument panel on some models. Mercedes-Benz and BMW use finger-length stalks on the steering column.

But research has found that some designs can confuse a motorist. Lincoln was forced to recall the then-new MKC sport-utility vehicle in early 2015 because some motorists were accidentally shutting off the engine when trying to change gears.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee shifter was labelled "unintuitive" by NHTSA, and ordered recalled.

The electronic shifter on a number of Chrysler products is a particularly troublesome example. While it may look somewhat like a conventional gearshift lever, it operates quite differently. Instead of firmly sliding into a set position for each gear, it simply rocks forward and back, making it quite easy to mistake one gear for another – or so NHTSA determined after investigating dozens of complaints about the design.

(Feds expand investigation of Jeep shifter. Click Here for the story.)

At the time of the April recall the agency said it knew of 121 accidents and 41 injuries related to the problem. It said the design was “unintuitive” and targeted the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger models from the 2012 to 2014 model-years, as well as Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 2014 and 2015 model-years. A total of 811,586 vehicles sold in the U.S. were affected, with roughly 300,000 more sold in Canada, Mexico and other global markets.

Whether the shifter was responsible for the death of Anton Yelchin is far from certain. What has so far been ascertained is that the actor appeared to have started his vehicle then exited it and walked down his driveway. The Jeep inadvertently either rolled or began to drive in reverse under power, crushing Yelchin against a gate. He was due for a meeting and when he didn’t show up, colleagues went to Yelchin’s home where they discovered the accident.

“The whole world is shifting from mechanical stuff to electronics,” said CAR’s Cole, adding that the trend will accelerate as autonomous vehicles begin coming to market. “But an incident like this is going to raise the question about our confidence that electronics will perform with a high level of reliability.”

Fiat Chrysler did not respond to several requests for comment, but a spokesman told website Autoblog that recall notices had been sent to owners of the affected vehicles, adding that, “Included in those notices were tip sheets describing proper operation of the shifter. This supplemental information echoes the instructions in the owner’s manual.”

It is not known if Yelchin received a recall notice or, if so, whether he took the Grand Cherokee in for repair. NHTSA data show that even the most serious safety recalls general achieve no more than a 70% response rate by owners and, in some cases, the figure can drop below 30%.

Vehicle tracking service CarFax estimates there are more than 40 million automobiles on U.S. roads with at least one unrepaired recall problem.

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