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New Does Not Always Mean Improved: The Problem with Jeep's Electronic Shifter

On Sunday, 27-year-old actor Anton Yelchin lost his life when his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down the driveway and pinned him against his security gate. "[Anton's] death," writes Jeff Guo for the Washington Post, "raised the fear of anyone who's ever parked on a steep incline and worried if the brakes would hold."

The accident, while certainly unusual, is not altogether unprecedented. As Guo reports, rollaway cars kill nearly 100 and injure roughly 2,000 people every year.

But, when it comes to this particular Jeep, the story gets more complicated.

Was a Known Poor Design Flaw at Play Here?

Though the automaker reportedly says don't be too quick to point fingers, the particular model involved in Anton's death is one of more than a million vehicles recalled earlier this year.

It boils down to the gear shifter's design.

Drivers think they've put the car in park when they've really put the car in neutral. Idling in neutral was exactly the state Anton's Jeep was in when he was found.

The Role of Human Factors

We've written about this before - the role of "human factors" in engineering and design. Human factors appears to have played a significant role in the crash of Flight 447, the subject of an in-depth Vanity Fair piece by the journalist and longtime pilot William Langewiesche.

In general, as we wrote in 2014 about the lost art of flying, the discipline of human factors involves the goal of improving the interaction between people and the things they use through good design. Good design, in turn, reduces the buildup of problematic friction between man and machine.

An 'Unconventional' Gear Shifter

In the case of the recalled Chrysler 300s, Dodge Chargers, and Jeep Grand Cherokees, this friction represents itself in the form of the unconventional gear shifter. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explains, the shifter "provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection."

You just don't get that satisfying clunk you've come to expect when shifting gears, for example. Instead, because of what essentially boils down to poor design, you have drivers who inadvertently put the car in neutral when they've tried to park.

And that's when you get rollaway cars.

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