It could take months to complete the investigation into the accidental death of Anton Yelchin, the 27-year-old actor best known for his role in several recent Star Trek movies — but it appears that the vehicle involved in his death was a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, an SUV recently recalled because of problems with its electronic shifter.
Los Angeles coroner's spokesman Ed Winter said that the death of Yelchin is being classified as an accident with the cause of death reported as "blunt force asphyxia" in which the actor was pinned against a gate by what sources told NBC News was one of the Jeeps involved in the safety recall.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles recalled three different models and a total of 1.1 million vehicles in April following an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency found the shifter could confuse motorists by not giving clear feedback as to what gear the automatic transmission was in.
That wasn’t the first time NHTSA has had to address the issue of faulty gear shifters. There have been problems with a number of mechanical shifters over the years, with some slipping out of the "Park" position unintentionally. But experts are growing particularly concerned about the newest generation of electronic shifters that are being described as “unintuitive” in their design and operation.
“The whole electronic shifter issue is a real concern right now,” said David Cole, director-emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research, or CAR, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “People may think they’ve shifted the car into 'Park' but it’s not.”
Gary Titus of Canton, Massachusetts, owner of a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, said he has experienced this "mis-shifting" on "multiple occasions" -- including one incident that sounds eerily similar to Yelchin's. "The worst one," said the 59-year-old, "was when I got pinned between the car and the garage."
Titus said when he heard about Yelchin's accident, "The first thing that came across my mind [was] oh my goodness, he's got the Jeep Grand Cherokee."
Traditional shifters have a direct mechanical connection to the transmission. The shift lever is designed to move forward or back into a dedicated position for each gear. There have been problems over the years with faulty shifters that could inadvertently slip from one gear to another, with recalls involving a wide range of manufacturers including Ford, General Motors and Nissan, among others.
But the problem of mis-shifting has become notably worse, according to experts, as the industry has migrated to so-called shift-by-wire, or electronic shift systems. Here, there is only an electrical link between transmission and shifter.
There are a number of potential advantages. Electronic shifters can save space. And they’re lighter, something that contributes to efforts to improve fuel economy. They can adopt non-traditional forms. Jaguar is one of several makers to adopt a rotary dial shifter. Lincoln uses push buttons on the instrument panel on some models. Mercedes-Benz and BMW use finger-length stalks on the steering column.
But research has found that some designs can confuse a motorist. Lincoln was forced to recall the then-new MKC sport-utility vehicle in early 2015 because some motorists were accidentally shutting off the engine when trying to change gears.
The electronic shifter on a number of Chrysler products is a particularly troublesome example. While it may look somewhat like a conventional gearshift lever, it operates quite differently. Instead of firmly sliding into a set position for each gear, it simply rocks forward and back, making it quite easy to mistake one gear for another — or so NHTSA determined after investigating dozens of complaints about the design.
At the time of the April recall NHTSA said Chrysler had informed the agency of 212 accidents and 41 injuries related to the problem. It said the design was “unintuitive” and targeted the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger models from the 2012 to 2014 model-years, as well as Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 2014 and 2015 model-years. A total of 811,586 vehicles sold in the U.S. were affected, with roughly 300,000 more sold in Canada, Mexico and other global markets.
Whether the Jeep's shifter played a role in the death of Anton Yelchin is far from certain. What has so far been ascertained is that the actor appeared to have started his vehicle, then exited it and walked down his driveway. The Jeep inadvertently either rolled or began to drive in reverse under power, crushing Yelchin against a gate. He was due for a meeting and, when he didn’t show up, colleagues went to Yelchin’s home where they discovered the accident.
“The whole world is shifting from mechanical stuff to electronics,” said CAR’s Cole, adding that the trend will accelerate as autonomous vehicles begin coming to market. “But an incident like this is going to raise the question about our confidence that electronics will perform with a high level of reliability.”
Said Sean Kane, founder and director of the Safety Institute, "This case will certainly raise the profile of a well-known issue that Chrysler has initiated a recall on but doesn't have a fix for yet."
Fiat-Chrysler said on Monday that it was working with investigators.
"FCA US extends its most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Yelchin," the automaker said. "The Company is in contact with the authorities and is conducting a thorough investigation. It is premature to speculate on the cause of this tragedy.”
A spokesman for the automaker told website Autoblog that recall notices had been sent to owners of the affected vehicles, adding that, “Included in those notices were tip sheets describing proper operation of the shifter. This supplemental information echoes the instructions in the owner's manual."
It is not known if Yelchin received a recall notice or, if he did, whether he took the Grand Cherokee in for repair. NHTSA data show that even the most serious safety recalls general achieve no more than a 70 percent response rate by owners and, in some cases, the figure can drop below 30 percent.
Vehicle tracking service CarFax estimates there are more than 40 million automobiles on U.S. roads with at least one unrepaired recall problem.