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Feds Probe 1M Vehicles, Citing Rollaway Risk from Faulty Shifter

Federal regulators have launched a preliminary investigation of Fiat Chrysler products after receiving 43 reports about potentially faulty shifters that can result in a rollaway risk.

The new probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration targets about 1 million Ram and Dodge pickups and SUVs. The investigation is similar to one involving FCA’s Jeep line. That effort was, in turn, triggered by the June death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin who was killed when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled away, pinning him against a fence.

A Dodge Ram 2014 pick-up truck is seen on the assembly line at Chrysler Group's Warren Truck Assembly plant in Warren, Michigan
A Dodge Ram 2014 pickup truck on the assembly line.

NHTSA also said it was looking at similar reports involving Jaguar and Land Rover products that also use electronic, rather than conventional, mechanical gearshift levers.

“The reports alleged that the unintended motion occurred after the driver moved the transmission gear selector to Park and exited the vehicle,” NHTSA said, announcing the latest gear shifter probe targeting FCA. “Thirty-four of the reports alleged that the vehicle was moving while the shifter indicated that it was in the park position.”

Related: Anton Yelchin Death Highlights Concerns About Electronic Shifters

The problem was linked to 25 crashes and nine injuries.

The new probe targets Ram 1500 pickups produced during the 2013 to 2016 model-years, as well as 2014 to 2016 Dodge Durangos. Both models use electronically controlled rotary shifters, rather than conventional, mechanical sliding shifters.

The Jeeps targeted by the earlier probe used a hybrid design, with a lever that could be toggled forward and back to shift between gears, but users complained that it was occasionally possible to not shift into the desired gear.

That is being blamed for the death of 27-year-old actor Yelchin, best known for his role in the recent reboot series of “Star Trek” films. He had gotten out of his Jeep Grand Cherokee when the vehicle rolled down an incline, pinning him to a mailbox pillar and security fence. His parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against FCA.

Anton Yelchin's bizarre death spurs investigation of Jeep SUV 2:58

With the new probe, NHTSA hopes to evaluate the “scope, frequency, and safety-related consequences of the alleged defect” on the Ram and Dodge models.

It is not yet clear if that will lead to a recall, but FCA in June recalled 811,000 Jeeps and other vehicles to modify their gear shifters.

The new probe is just the latest in a series of investigations involving shifters, some of those dating back decades. But complaints have been rising in recent years as the auto industry has begun moving from conventional shifter designs to newer, electronic controls. One reason is that mechanical links can be eliminated, reducing complexity and freeing up space in and around the center console.

But critics contend the designs can be confusing to motorists used to the normal patterns of a mechanical shifter.

Related: Feds Probe Fiat Chrysler Over Inflated Sales Figures

An FCA spokesman said the automaker will cooperate with the new probe. He added that, “In accordance with prudent practice, the company joins NHTSA in urging all drivers to use their vehicles’ parking brakes” to help prevent rollaways should a car be left in the wrong gear.

FCA isn’t the only maker NHTSA is now probing for rollaway problems. The agency today said it is looking into potential defects involving Land Rover Evoque SUVs from the 2012 to 2014 model-years, as well as Jaguar XF sedans from 2013.

All told, seven complaints have been received, including one from a driver who was pinned by the vehicle against a garage wall.