Sometimes, it takes the untimely demise of a celebrity for the world to sit up and take notice of a particular problem. And so it was, last week, when actor Anton Yelchin was killed, by his own car, in a tragic accident in Los Angeles.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the 27-year-old, best known as Pavel Chekov in the latest Star Trek films, died outside his home when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled backwards across his driveway and crushed him between a brick pillar and a security fence. While it was ruled accidental, the incident has sparking fresh discussion about Jeep’s “unintuitive” gear selector meant Yelchin would have been under the mistaken impression he had put his gearstick into “park”, when it would actually have been in neutral.
The design of the shift lever has come in for criticism with owners of the Grand Cherokee, as well as the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300, both of which it also features in. It has reportedly been the root cause of more than 40 separate injuries involving “runaway” cars. The problem is that the “e-shifter” doesn’t provide the usual tactile feel of being put into the correct position. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) issued a recall notice to all owners of vehicles fitted with it, explaining the problem and reminding drivers of its proper operation.
FCA stated last week, announcing a product recall, that “the vehicles involved in these events were inspected and no evidence of equipment failure was found”. It found that while the vehicles did warn occupants if the driver’s door was open while the engine was running and the transmission not in “park”, these measures may have been insufficient. Its fix for the problem involved updating the vehicles’ computer software to more effectively warn drivers in such an event, and altering the design for future models.
According to The Wall Street Journal, FCA is facing the prospect of a multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit, brought by owners of the affected cars. Galvanised by Yelchin’s death, they claim that FCA concealed the problem, and are calling for an official “do not drive” warning until each car has been fixed.
The software update adds extra warnings on the digital displays about the position of the gear shifter and automatically shifts into “park” when it detects the driver has left the vehicle.
FCA’s reputation has already taken a hammering over its handling of similar issues. The American government handed it a US$105 million (Dh386m) fine last year for unsatisfactory recalls of defective cars.
More than anything, though, this matter points to a growing problem with car design: it’s getting a bit too clever for its own good. We all rely on cars providing us with certain information. But the more our vehicles become computerised, the less we get to feel through our five senses, and sometimes, that can make the difference between life and death.
Source: art & life