Once upon a time, a three-on-the-tree shifter or a floor-mounted unit with a lever the length of a ski pole was the norm for rowing through the gears. Then GM graced us with the automatic transmission, and the world soon grew used to a column-mounted shifter with a selector gauge mounted atop the steering shaft, smack dab in front of the driver’s eyes.
With a few exceptions caused by automakers trying to be sexy, this trend carried over into console-mounted shifters. Americans liked their beer cold, their country free, and their PRNDL choices straightforward and obvious.
Unfortunately, with mechanical linkages no longer required, a shifter can now be anything the automaker wants it to be, leading some companies — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles especially — into new and potentially deadly territory. With backlash against unorthodox shifters growing, it seems FCA has received the message.
FCA’s first clue that perhaps drivers weren’t ready for the next big thing in automatic transmission gear selection came in early 2016, when hundreds of rollaway incidents, dozens of injuries and a possible high-profile death prompted a recall of 1.1 million vehicles equipped with confusing monostable-style shifters.
With that shifter, no longer in use at FCA, drivers sometimes exited their vehicles after mistakenly believing the vehicle was placed in park. Other automakers continue to offer models with levers that return to the same position after the driver selects a new gear. Unfortunately for FCA, the controversy didn’t end there.
Last December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into 1 million Ram 1500 and Dodge Durango vehicles equipped with rotary-style shifters. A different shifter, but the same rollaway problem. Alarmingly, the majority of drivers reporting rollaways claim they clearly remembered placing the vehicle in park.
The distrust surrounding the shifters only grew when Ford announced the addition of an “auto park” feature to its Fusion sedan, which also carries a rotary shift knob. Then Consumer Reports piped up.
The consumer advocacy publication said last week that it has begun docking points from vehicles equipped with potentially confusing gearshifts. Vehicles sold without a PRNDL layout or auto park feature should expect lower scores in its annual rankings. It now looks like the kitchen’s simply too hot for FCA. After Consumer Reports dropped its bomb, FCA seemed to throw in the towel.
“FCA US acknowledges the observations of Consumer Reports and is reviewing its shifter strategy,” the automaker said in a statement.
Whether this means the addition of an auto park feature or a return to traditional shifters remains to be seen. Either way, few automakers can afford to be seen slipping in consumer rankings, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other manufacturers follow suit.
[Source: Automotive News] [Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]