Fiat Chrysler’s Transmission Woes Continue

Last Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a new probe into rollaway complaints from drivers of late-model Dodge Durango SUVs and Ram 1500 trucks equipped with Fiat Chrysler’s new rotary dial shifter. It follows on the heels on a rollaway investigation into FCA vehicles with a Monostable shifter, which concluded in June with a recall, and a high-profile death. Actor Anton Yelchin, famous for his portrayal of Pavel Chekov in Star Trek movies, died when when he was pinned by his 2015 Jeep Cherokee in the driveway of his home.

So far, the agency has done little in this new probe but collect some 43 complaints from owners who reported that their vehicle rolled after they had moved the rotary dial to Park and exited the vehicle, racking up 25 crashes and nine injuries. The vast majority alleged that the vehicle rolled away, even though the shifter indicated that it was in the park position. Sometimes the engine was still running; sometimes it was off.

Unaccounted for the in that list is a Pennsylvania man who died after being pinned by his 2016 Ram 1500 with the rotary dial shifter. Attorneys David Kwass and Robert J. Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, PC, gave FCA notice of this fatality at least two months ago. In late September, FCA inspected the vehicle.

In launching its investigation, NHTSA, (People Blaming People ™), couldn’t resist delivering this alarming news without giving its driver-error machine a crank or two. The Opening Resume chides: “Notably none of the reports indicate that the parking brake was engaged at the time of the roll-away incident. Subject vehicle owners, and in fact all drivers, should always apply the parking brake to prevent vehicle roll-away.”

But, enough about you bad drivers. These shift-by-wire transmissions with new interfaces have been a big headache for FCA, even though the automaker was all jazzed in 2011 about how awesome electronic shift controls were going to be:

“High efforts in shifting also have been eliminated with gear selection controlled by a shift-by-wire system. The position selected by the driver (P, R, N, D) is transmitted electronically with no mechanical linkage from the shifter to the outside of the transmission. Elimination of this linkage removes any shift effort from the driver’s gear selection. Shift-by-wire also allows improved calibration and smoothness of garage and parking lot shifts.”

In reality, the transition to this transition has been less than smooth. And the reported complaints indicate that human error may only be part of the problem. (It is particularly true that the Monostable shifters suffered from a poor design – the driver changing gears must depress a button on the shift lever and move it to the gear position, then the lever springs back to a centered/neutral position. The gear is displayed on the lever and on the dashboard. NHTSA found that the Monostable shifter was “not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”

Regardless of the way the driver executes a shift in the Dodge Ram and Jeep Grand Cherokee – either by the Monostable lever or the rotary dial – the vehicles share the same transmission and electronics that do not physically move the gearshift into a detent. They send a gear request from the driver via the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus to the Transmission Control Module which then makes the requested shift. In the last three years, these transmissions – in the Dodge and Jeep vehicles, and used by other manufacturers – have been the subject of recalls, investigations and technical service bulletins.

For example, twice the last three years Chrysler recalled Ram trucks for mechanical defects in the transmission, including an April 2014 campaign for “certain model year 2014 Ram 1500 4x4 vehicles manufactured January 24, 2014, through February 5, 2014. In the affected vehicles, the transmission case may have been improperly machined which can result in the park pawl not properly engaging when the transmission is in the 'Park' position.”

The complaints indicate the possibility of both electronic and mechanical defects. Reports of rollaways that occurred after the transmission was placed in Park and vehicle engine was shut off are troubling because the Chrysler design prevents shutdown unless it has a signal that the vehicle is in Park. They suggest the potential for a mechanical defect, like the recall above, and/or an electronic issue in which there is an errant signal that the transmission is in Park or Park is in fact engaged but it disengages inadvertently via an electronic signal. 

The situation as The Safety Record sees it is this: FCA introduced new shifter styles that worked differently, felt different to the driver, and in the case of the rotary dial, was placed in a new location, right next to the HVAC controls.

Human factors research since the beginning of time shows that when interfaces are changed, human error will increase. The smart automaker anticipates this well-known phenomenon and designs countermeasures to address it. The careless automaker puts the sh-t out there without all that fuss, and waits to get caught. Added to the mix are bad electronics and some manufacturing problems, but as long as consumers can be accused, why bother the engineers?

Dial R for Rollaway

Chrysler began installing the dial-configured shifter in the Dodge Ram in 2013, and added it to other models, such as the Chrysler 200 and Chrysler 300. The rotary shifter is located on the instrument panel with the PRNDL displayed both above the shifter control and in the Electronic Vehicle Information Center. Drivers must press the brake pedal to shift out of PARK or to shift from NEUTRAL into DRIVE or REVERSE.

Some Dodge enthusiasts on Ram message board have been less than enthusiastic about this alleged advance in transmission technology:

“My father got a 2014 Durango also with the rotary shifter. We like that it takes up less space on the console. Less space equals more storage or bigger cupholders. What he specifically does not like is the dial also looks like the large fan control dial. Even though there is enough space between them, he once in awhile finds himself shifting with the HVAC or turning up the heat on the console. Yeah, he is getting up there in years but is still very much with it. The controls do look similar.”

“I think it sucks myself.... You shouldn't have to "look" for the dam shifter before throwing it into reverse or drive. I am getting tired of turning the radio volume up or down, thinking I have hold of the stupid little shifter dial. Not very easy to find the dinky little down shift buttons on the wheel either when you are pulling a trailer and coming to a down grade. Again, if you need to "look" for the shift buttons it is dangerous because you are not looking at the road.”

A review of Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaires reported to NHTSA identified nearly 100 reports specifically focused on transmission problems in a variety of Chrysler vehicles with a rotary dial shifter:. Some document human factors issues, in which driver reported thinking that they had placed the transmission in Park, when they had actually only achieved the Reverse position:

“I have had 2 instances with the rotary shift on this vehicle. In both cases I had thought the vehicle was in park when it was actually in reverse. When the first incident happened I was able to safely stop the vehicle without incident. However, when the second incident happened I had exited the vehicle with my wife as a passenger. Neither of us was able to stop it and continued backwards and struck a parked vehicle that was parked. This caused  significant damage to both vehicles. Thankfully, no one was injured and now I am extremely careful when putting this vehicle into the park mode. I checked the push button ignition assuming that in an emergency I could stop the engine but found this would not work. If the circumstances were a bit different the outcome could have been very bad. The incident happened at a car dealer’s lot with my vehicle backing and striking on of the cars on their lot.”

 

Others suggest an electronic problem, with the vehicle shifting on its own:

"Bought a brand new 2015 Dodge Ram 1500, the first week I had an issue with one of the windows not going back up, about a month later I was driving and the new knob shifter, went into neutral by itself while I was driving. Meant to take it in, but had been so busy with work, that I was going to wait until the first oil change. I noted those two issues on an email review/survey that dodge hounded me to fill out. Exactly two months after owning the truck on July 28th, the same day I made my second payment, I was at the garage at work, left the truck on and put it in park, got out of the car, closed the door and as I was getting ready to go around the truck to go inside my job, the car started to back out by itself, I tried getting back into the truck to stop it but unfortunately, i failed, the truck almost ran me over. Thankfully a cement beam stopped this from happening.”

 

Still others report that the vehicle rolled with the dial still indicating the vehicle was in the Park position – which could be an electronic or mechanical defect:

"The contact owns a 2015 Ram 1500. After the vehicle was placed in Park and the contact exited, it began to roll back. The vehicle was found in a pond. A police report was filed. The vehicle was towed out of the pond to a tow yard. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the vehicle was still registered in park. The manufacturer was notified of the failure. The failure mileage was approximately 20,000."

 

And several drivers complained that while shifting their dial from Park to Drive (or Reverse to Drive) while also taking their foot off of the brake, the ‘D’ on the dial starts flashing, and the vehicle remains in neutral.

The Monostable Blues

The Safety Record wrote about the Monostable shifter defect in February, Chrysler’s Shifty Shifters and the Wacky World of Defects, just after NHTSA upgraded its investigation from a Preliminary Evaluation to an Engineering Analysis and just before Chrysler issued a recall for 811,000 2012-2014 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger and 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles.  The recall identified the defect as a transmission that “may not adequately warn the driver when driver's door is opened and the vehicle is not in PARK, allowing them to exit the vehicle while the vehicle is still in gear.” FCA tried its best to pin the blame on its customers, saying that it would begin notifying vehicle owners about scheduling software repairs aimed at preventing incidents caused by the “misuse” of their confusing gearshift mechanism. It later cited “driver inattention,” as a factor.

In June, NHTSA closed its Engineering Analysis, five days after Yelchin’s death was reported.

But the saga did not end there. The fix was new software that included an “Auto Park” feature which would engage if the vehicle is not in park and the driver presses the ignition switch to turn the vehicle off. It will also engage if the vehicle is not in park and the driver exits the vehicle while it is running.

In other words, instead of using the driver as its countermeasure, FCA could have implemented a failsafe from the get-go that would work regardless of the engine status.

FCA revised its Part 573 Notice of Defect and Noncompliance seven times – most recently on November 4. The automaker conceded that its recall fix was a failure:

“FCA US has determined that the existing strategies built into these vehicles to deter drivers from exiting the vehicle after failing to put the transmission into PARK have not stopped some from doing so. Drivers erroneously concluding that their vehicle’s transmission is in the PARK position may be struck by the vehicle and injured if they attempt to get out of the vehicle while the engine is running and the parking brake is not engaged. FCA US has therefore determined that the absence of an additional mechanism to mitigate the effects of driver error in failing to shift the monostable gear selector into PARK prior to exiting the vehicle constitutes a defect presenting a risk to motor vehicle safety.”

 

Nonetheless, notice the language: Customers! You are not doing it right!

However, in a Safety Technical Advisory FCA let slip that it actually may have been their techs who were not doing it right: “Some of the involved vehicles that had safety recall S27 performed may not have had all four involved modules updated with new or correct software. Due to this unfortunate situation, the recall status for this small group of vehicles will be returned to “Open” status for this recall in the Global Recall System.”

In fact, FCA has known about at least one electronic problem causing rollaways since at least October 2015, when it issued a Technical Service Bulletin for the 2015 Grand Cherokee and Durango with the Monostable configuration. It addresses “shift enhancement;” however, if one keeps reading, one finds the bulletin actually addresses “erroneous” malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) illumination and several possible diagnostic trouble codes (DTC) stored within the transmission control module that are related to rollaway. In other words, the electronics mistakenly disengage the parking pawl, when the transmission indicates that the vehicle is in Park. No mention of that in the NHTSA investigation…

Who’s doing it wrong now, FCA, huh?

As we move into 2017 and the dawn of A Golden Era in which all driver errors are erased by our Robot Car Overlords, The Safety Record will continue to ruminate on how the agency can use the occasion of investigating an automaker that cannot get park-by-wire right, to criticize the poor schmucks stuck with a badly designed and poorly executed transmission that rolls away. 

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