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Media murdering shifter story

by David Zatz on

On Sunday, actor Anton Yelchin left is 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and was pinned against a fence by it.

The news media generally reported the story with a focus on the “recalled” Jeep. It had indeed been recalled, and not yet fixed, because the “fix” was not yet ready.  What is the fix? Making the transmission move into Park when the driver opens the door.


There was some mirth when the recall was announced, because despite the real crashes and 41 injuries, the recall was somewhat farcical.  There are no less than two gear indicators on FCA cars with this transmission — one on the shifter and one on the dash.  It is not hard to get into Park (unlike, say, Reverse) with these shifters. Audi has used a similar shifter for years “without incident” — though not without official complaints to the NHTSA over similar issues.

Audi shifter

The shifter is an absurd and unnecessarily poor design, but not necessarily an unsafe one. There have been many injuries every year on cars with every kind of shifter. People do stupid things, and one of them is getting out of the car without using the parking brake or checking the gear light.

Even a highly respected auto publication wrote that it was unknown whether Yelchin’s car had been fixed. Unless the fix was using an absurd visor card, it has not been fixed — but the company sent a letter to each owner describing the problem (at so much length that few are likely to have read it) and how to avoid it (though not going so far as to say “look at the @#$! light and use the parking brake.”)

recall card

FCA is not making a public relations offensive. Spokesman Eric Mayne said the company is conducting a thorough investigation. Meanwhile, television stations flocked to Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety and a harsh critic of Chrysler in the past, to present his side of the story. They stressed the recall, stated numerous times that the “fix” had been out for several days, and sometimes even mentioned the visor card, which was not the “fix.”  In essence, most printed and broadcast media did a fine job of explaining why many people say they do not trust printed and broadcast media.

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne said, “I find it almost unbelievable that we’re now forcing this transmission to go into Park when the door is opened.” That was the view of most onlookers until Sunday.

The damage is done. Most importantly, Anton Yelchin lost his life; but he may have done so with any car.  People make mistakes. It’s a shame, though, that so many editors and writers have sensationalized the story by blaming Jeep — and put so little thought into what was published.

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