First off, none of this is intended to trivialize any harm that has occurred. The premature loss of life, no matter the circumstances, is tragic, and our condolences go out to the people and families affected.
But often in cases like this, and in an effort to hurriedly find a reason why – a culprit – people are prone to misidentify the problem and cause.
We have experience with the Chrysler Fiat shifter at issue. In fact, months ago in a Jeep Grand Cherokee Altitude review update we addressed the shifter’s ease of use, or lack thereof.
It’s a simple enough process, really. But if you skip the visual verification there’s no doubt that an undesired gear could be selected.
However, while the current discussion revolves around the supposed fault with the shifter, from our vantage point a fundamental lesson in proper vehicle use is being overlooked. Namely, the presence and function of the parking brake.
Parking brake awareness has no doubt declined at a rate proportionate to the use of manual transmission vehicles. Since an ever-shrinking portion of the population has experience with manual transmissions, fewer and fewer people are familiar with the use and important function of the parking brake.
In some recent informal MinimumTread polling (i.e. we ran into a group of freshly licensed whippersnappers) we discouragingly found a total lack of awareness on the issue. A few blank stares, and one “it’s the brake that turns on when you put the car in Park.”
The Fiat Chrysler shifter certainly isn’t the only one in use that doesn’t mechanically define the gear selection. Take for instance the dual clutch shifter in our E90 BMW M3 (also common to the most current generation of ///M cars). This shifter also returns to center when either Drive or Neutral is selected. Not to mention, it lacks a Park setting altogether. Only once the car is turned off does Park auto-engage. So in the M3, if you’re in Neutral (intentionally or not) with the car running and the parking brake disengaged, and on a slope, you’re rolling…
Could Fiat Chrysler have made the gear selection in the Jeep and other affected vehicles more mechanically communicative? Possibly.
Until we arrive at the fully autonomous automobile, no amount of engineering can compensate for a lack of user cognizance.
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