What You Should Know About The Confusing Gear Shift In Jeep, Dodge, & Chrysler Vehicles

For years, the gearshift in a vehicle has followed roughly the same design: a user guides the stick to a designated slot corresponding to the desired gear selection. That has changed in recent years, as some carmakers have opted for sleeker, tech-savvy electronic shifters. However, these components have proven to be confusing, leading to some vehicles — thought to have been in “park” — rolling away, injuring some owners. 

As a result of these issues, Fiat Chysler (FCA) issued the recall of 811,586 model year 2012 to 2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans and model year 2014 to 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.

A Confusing Change

The crux of the problem is found in the design of the more intuitive electronic gear shifter.

Unlike a traditional shifter, the electronic version is simply moved forward and backward to select gear. Once the gear has been selected, the shifter returns to the centered position.

This means the e-shifter lacks the typical grooves and sensation of moving the car into park, drive or reverse that drivers are accustomed to.

While the vehicles include a chime and message that sounds when a driver opens his or her door when the gearshift isn’t in “park,” safety regulators determined this function does not protect drivers who “intentionally leave the engine running or those who do not realize that the engine is still running after an attempted shut-off.”

A search of YouTube shows that Sam Leman Automotive Group, which sells Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles, created a video guide for the electronic shifter.

While the video is informative in showing how the shifter works, it also illustrates how the system could be confusing.

The constant back and forth of the shifter could lead drivers to believe they have successfully moved the selector into the proper “park” gear when it actually remains in “neutral,” “drive,” or “reverse.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into the issue in August 2015 after receiving 14 consumer complaints about Jeeps rolling away from their supposed parked position.

The agency expanded the recall in February after receiving additional complaints from owners of Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger owners.

In all, NHTSA says it has identified 121 incidents that have resulted in crashes or fires, with 30 incidents involving injuries to drivers or passengers such as a broken nose, facial lacerations requiring stitches, sprained knees, severe bruising, and trauma to legs.

A Dangerous Situation

Confusion over the shifter is described by vehicle owners, who strongly believed they had put the car in the “park” position, in complaints submitted to NHTSA’s complaint database:

“The vehicle was put in park while running,” one complaint reads. “The vehicle then started to roll backwards while still in park and then collided into another parked vehicle… three occupants proceeded to evacuate the vehicle before it collided with the parked car. The two children and adult passenger evacuated the vehicles as they thought it might roll into street traffic and be struck. A child was injured exiting the vehicle as the vehicle collided with another parked vehicle and then continued on rolling into a ditch.”

“While in ‘park’ and idling, the vehicle rolled forward and struck objects 20 yards away causing $1,500 worth of damage to the right front bumper,” one complaint states. “My wife parked the car and had exited the vehicle, when after about 30 seconds it rolled forward and struck headstones in a cemetery. The car still indicated it was in ‘park’ when my son reentered the vehicle.”

In another complaint, the owner of a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee says the vehicles rolled from the “park” position without warning. When the woman attempted to stop the car, it ran over her hip, causing injuries that required medical attention.

“The vehicle was stationary, in park with the engine idling,” the complaint from a Grand Cherokee owner in Massachusetts states. “Standing outside of the vehicle, I opened the door to reach in to turn the ignition off. As soon as I hit ignition, the car accelerated forward dragging me about 10 yards. I was not in the vehicle and help on to the steering wheel and open door to keep from getting run over. It collided with vehicle parked in front of me, luckily I was in an empty parking lot and no one was injured.”

The owner of another 2015 Grand Cherokee from Georgia shared a similar story.

“The vehicle was in park, and I exited the car,” the complaint states. “My wife was sitting gin the passenger seat and the car was not moving. When my wife exited to retrieve an item from the house. She returned to find the vehicle down the hill and in the woods.”

“The Jeep’s electronic Transmission did not fully shift into the ‘park’ position while still running,” the owner of a 2015 Grand Cherokee in Kentucky tells NHTSA. “My wife exited the vehicle to take our three-year-old from the back seat and the Jeep began to roll away. She ran and jumped into the driver’s seat to stop it and in the process her foot slipped from the brake to the gas pedal driving the car into/through a house.”

“While the electronic shifter was in park, the vehicle independently moved backwards and struck another vehicle,” the complaint states. “There were no injuries and a police report was filed The vehicle was taken to the mechanic who stated that the rear passenger side bumper was damaged and needed to be repaired.”

“When the gear shift was placed in park, the gear failed to engage and the vehicle rolled more than once,” the owner of a 2014 Grand Cherokee in North Carolina tells NHTSA. “The contact had to quickly get back into the vehicle, ensure the gear was completely in park, and apply the emergency brake.”

The Need For Improvements

One owner submitted a complaint to NHTSA urging the agency to require FCA replace electronic shifters with a traditional shifter that stays in the position corresponding to the transmission gear selection.

“More display warnings and printed cards will not solve the user interface problem created by the shifter moving back to center regardless of the transmission gear selection,” the complaint states. “On numerous occasions, I have moved the shift selector forward from drive toward park, thinking that I had heard/felt three clicks and that I was in park, only to find that the vehicle is in reverse.”

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports echoed the need for change in March, noting that the carmaker lacks a fail-safe to prevent drivers from exiting the vehicle when it isn’t placed in the park position.

“It is confusing and odd and then it doesn’t have any safety mechanism,” Jonathon Linkov, Consumer Reports‘ deputy auto editor, told CBS News. “What we would like to see is that there is a fail-safe so at the end of the day you don’t have a problem with cars going to launch forward, roll backward, move in some way that the consumer’s not expecting it.”

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.