FCA Launches AutoPark “Customer Satisfaction Notification” Campaigns, Why no Recall?

About three weeks ago, FCA sent out a Customer Satisfaction Notification, alerting dealers “to enable” the AutoPark feature on 192,400 Model Year 2014-2016 Dodge Durango with rotary-style shifters. This follows a May campaign to “enable” the feature on in 281,790 RAM 1500 Pickup, Dodge Durango, and Chrysler 300 vehicles – all from the 2017 model year – and also with rotary-style shifters. According to FCA’s dealer bulletin, the company planned to notify vehicle owners of the “service requirement” via mail and dealers are instructed to that all involved vehicles can be identified in the company Global Recall System.

FCA’s non-recall, required service campaigns, which are being quietly rolled out, are not garnering headlines like the recalls FCA launched in 2016 to correct the same type of issue in Jeeps and other FCA models with another type of electronic shifter known as the Monostable. It is also the latest instance of back-peddling for FCA, which tried to popularize e-shift controls previously found in high-end luxury vehicles and ended up in the middle of NHTSA investigations, lawsuits and a wave of derision. (see Fiat Chrysler’s Transmission Woes Continue)

FCA describes AutoPark “as an enhanced securement strategy which places the vehicle in “PARK” if the driver attempts to exit the vehicle before placing the rotary gear shift selector in the “PARK” position.”  FCA’s first foray into AutoPark started in 2013 model year Dodge Ram trucks – but only those with the Engine Start/Stop (ESS) technology – a limited-population vehicle. ESS technology automatically shuts off the engine when a driver stops for a traffic light, and then restarts the engine when it’s time to resume driving. 

In the last two years, however, FCA has been implementing AutoPark widely as a countermeasure for vehicles with e-shifters that the automaker introduced in 2013 (Monostable and rotary dial designs). (see The Persistence of Rollaway)

The Monostable is a T-style shifter, which requires the driver to depress a button on the shift lever and move it to the gear position. The lever then springs back to a centered/neutral position. The gear position is displayed on the lever and on the dashboard. The rotary dial e-shifter is located on the instrument panel, with the PRNDL displayed both above the 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.

Back in 2013, FCA thought it scored a design coup with the introduction of its new shifters. In press materials, FCA was sure that “Owners will appreciate an innovative rotary e-shift dial for trucks equipped with the new TorqueFlite 8-speed transmission that replaces both column and floor shifters. The exclusive rotary e-shift dial enables intuitive operation with a direct and confident feel, even with gloves on. The convenient, dash-mounted, easy-to-understand and operate system provides total control of the sophisticated eight-speed transmission and is Ram Truck’s innovative approach to electronic shifters, already used in Class 6-8 trucks.”

It turned out that FCA vehicle owners were not as appreciative as the automaker predicted. The “exclusive rotary e-shift” was neither intuitive nor easy-to-understand. Drivers complained that shifting the dial didn’t provide adequate feedback whether they were in the right gear, leading them to mistakenly exit the vehicle without it being locked in Park. The rotary dial shifter’s poor placement also resulted in drivers mistakenly turning the nearby radio volume dial. The FCA rotary e-shifter has been implicated in rollaway crashes, injuries, and at least one death.

Ditto for the Monostable shifter, which was criticized for giving drivers poor visual and tactile cues, also leading to driver confusion about the gear state. Vehicles with that shifter was linked to at least 266 crashes, 308 reports of property damage and 68 injuries, and at least one death

In August 2015, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened a Preliminary Evaluation into the Monostable shifter design in 856,284 late model Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 vehicles, after more than 300 consumers complained to FCA and the agency about rollaways. Like the owners of rotary dial shifter vehicles, complaints suggested that drivers had misperceived the gear state. Some believed they had pushed the gear shift all the way forward to the Park position, but actually stopped at the Reverse position next to it.  

In April 2016, FCA recalled 811,586 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans from the 2012-14 model years, and MY 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees. The fix was a software re-flash to implement the AutoPark feature.  

In December 2016, NHTSA opened a Preliminary Evaluation investigation into 2013-2016 Dodge Ram 1500 and 2014-2016 Dodge Durangos with the rotary shifter. The investigation’s Opening Resume cited 43 rollaway complaints, with 25 crashes and nine injuries. The agency has publicly filed no other documents in the investigation in more than 18 months. It remains open.

In both cases, an unusual gear-shift interfaces misled drivers about the state of the transmission, resulting in rollaway crashes, with pretty serious consequences. So the Monostable-rollaway shifter problems get a recall, while the rotary-dial e-shifter problems get handled with a series of quiet customer satisfaction campaigns.

NHTSA, you cool with that?


More FCA Weirdness

The language FCA is using in notifying dealers about its rotary dial e-shifter vehicles is also strange. Both the May and July campaigns say that the AutoPark feature “may not be enabled” in certain vehicles within discrete manufacturing date ranges. This suggests that the feature was already in the vehicle, but just wasn’t turned on.

In the case of the 2017 Dodge Ram, Dodge Durango and Chrysler 300, AutoPark was introduced as a running change mid-year. (In its April 2017 cars buying guide issue, Consumer Reports pointedly removed the Chrysler 300’s “Recommended” status, because it lacked AutoPark – a safety feature the organization rightly noted should be in modern vehicles with e-shifters. FCA earned it back in July 2017, after installing it.) So it’s possible that it was not enabled in some production models before they hit the showroom.

But it is far more likely that FCA is installing AutoPark in those vehicles for the first time. According to Consumer Reports, the feature was added to those three 2017 models on April 1, 2017. The customer satisfaction notice notes that the build dates for the vehicles with an AutoPark feature that “may not be enabled,” are April 12, 2016 through April 01, 2017.

Likewise, there is no evidence that AutoPark was ever implemented in a 2014-2106 Dodge Durango. This feature is not mentioned in the service literature nor owner’s manuals. We think it’s safe to say that FCA can drop the word “may.”

And, we suppose that one could use the term “enabled” to mean adding a software algorithm based on data points already being monitored in the vehicle. But we are still trying to figure out why one bad shifter gets the countermeasure in a recall and another gets the same fix for the same kind of safety defect in a second-tier effort.