The death of 27-year-old Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin has again thrust an auto recall story into the national spotlight.
It has also brought scrutiny to a once-simple function that has grown more complicated in recent years: shifting a vehicle with an automatic transmission into drive or reverse and back to park or neutral.
As the illustration below shows, vehicles ranging from the Honda Pilot to the Mercedes-Benz S class have evolved from mechanical control to electronic. "Shifting" is typically directed by fingertip touches on dials, stalks, levers and buttons.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees were built with what's known as a monostable shifter. The shifter typically rests in the middle of three positions. The driver directs the shifter fore and aft to cycle electronically through park, reverse, neutral, drive and low.
FCA and California investigators are studying what caused Yelchin's 2015 Grand Cherokee to roll backward on his sloped driveway. He was found by friends outside his vehicle with the engine running at 1 a.m. on June 19, fatally pinned against a gatepost.
In April, FCA recalled more than 811,000 Grand Cherokees from the 2014-15 model years and 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans in the United States equipped with monostable shifters. On Thursday, June 23, FCA added 13,092 2014 Maserati Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans to the recall list.
By the end of last week, FCA had sent its dealers a software upgrade designed to ensure that Grand Cherokees in a gear other than park would not move if the driver's-side door was open. FCA also would install additional warnings to alert drivers that their vehicles were not in park.
Earlier, FCA told owners to read their manuals to familiarize themselves more fully with how the shift mechanism is intended to work.
Familiarity hasn't always been a challenge in shifting an automobile into drive or park. But style, electronics and the battle for space on the dash and center console have changed the shifter's shape and the way it is operated.