I have been reading reports from the US recently that suggest that manufacturers have been going too far in making things easy for the driver, when it comes to using an automatic gearbox! The whole concept was to make it easier, so to take it a step further is quite a feat.
In the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received hundreds of complaints about cars rolling away from their drivers. The issue was highlighted 18 months ago by the death of an actor in the US who had got out of his Jeep to secure the gate on his property only for the vehicle to pin – and crush him – to death. His Jeep was fitted with a “monostable” shifter.
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (#102) requires the sequence of gears in an automatic box to be PRNDL and this has been in place for decades. However technology has moved on at an ever faster pace and so many modern cars (especially at the higher end of the price range) do not use mechanical linkages between the gear shifter and the box. It is all electronically controlled.
The problem it seems is that the designers wanted the shifter to always return to a central point – making it feel like a sequential box and this confuses inattentive or tired drivers. Although there are typically informational lights showing which selection is made, it seems possible that in moving the shifter, the driver is not aware of whether the selection was made properly because the shifter is always in the same position.
Thus, in the case of the actor, his Grand Cherokee rolled backwards as it was not in Park mode. What interests me is that on an incline, the weight of the vehicle would have made it move immediately, however he thought it was stable. Could the electronics have had a time lapse that meant that it thought it was in Park and then selected Reverse after a few seconds, or more likely, did the driver simply get out of the vehicle assuming it was in Park, yet it was in Drive and the system decided to change to Neutral because there were no other inputs.
FIAT Chrysler issued a recall after this incident that covered Chryslers, Jeep and even the new Maserati Ghibli and Quattroporte to fix the issue. They did this by adding a switch that ensured the vehicle was in a “park” mode if the driver’s door was open, however what if it is cold or raining and the driver hops out, shuts the door and wanders in front or behind the vehicle? Presumably a similar incident could happen again.
This is a fascinating modern issue. The interior designs of vehicles are getting ever more focus and the designers are trying to give each vehicle its own personality. In the fight for space and functionality, the shifter has been redesigned to include many functions or feel smoother. It appears that these designs have not met with real world usage and that is not all the fault of the designers.
For the enthusiast, their car is known intimately – they know where every switch or button is and they know how to use them. However, the majority of drivers simply get in, shove it into Drive and most of the other functions are ignored, sometimes that includes the indicators and mirrors! In some instances, to help this type of driver, the designers have made the electronic shifter feel mechanical to ensure that the operator knows where it is and therefore what mode is selected.
Yet again the inattentive few have added to the complexity of the internal systems of the vehicle. This might sound arrogant, however, proper driver training is the most efficient way of reducing accidents, for all ages. Knowing how your car operates really can be a life saver.