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Fiat Chrysler Moves Up Repair Dates For Gearshift After Actor’s Death

Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are seen on a sales lot on April 22, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Fiat Chrysler has prompted Fiat Chrysler has accelerated its plans to modify gearshifts in 1.1 million vehicles following the high-profile death of actor Anton Yelchin.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are seen on a sales lot on April 22, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Fiat Chrysler has prompted Fiat Chrysler has accelerated its plans to modify gearshifts in 1.1 million vehicles following the high-profile death of actor Anton Yelchin.

In an era of unprecedented scrutiny of automotive safety, Fiat Chrysler is learning that one celebrity's death can turn a seemingly routine recall into a corporate crisis.

The death on Sunday of the actor Anton Yelchin, crushed when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled backward down his driveway, has lent a new sense of urgency to a recall announced in April. And it has prompted Fiat Chrysler to accelerate its plans to modify gearshifts in 1.1 million vehicles linked to hundreds of rollaway accidents and dozens of injuries.

On Wednesday, Fiat Chrysler said it would begin notifying vehicle owners later this week about scheduling software repairs aimed at preventing accidents caused by the misuse of a confusing gearshift mechanism.

By industry standards, the recall had already been proceeding at what might be considered a standard, if measured pace. But Chrysler, already operating under a federal consent decree for falling short in past recalls, could not risk another accident involving the gearshifts. That is especially so for its Grand Cherokee, the flagship of Fiat Chrysler's American lineup.

In its update Wednesday, the company did not mention Mr. Yelchin's death.

But Fiat Chrysler's announcement put things on a faster track than statements earlier in the week, when the company said a remedy for the shifters, which many drivers have found confusing to use, would be available in July or August.

A company spokesman, Eric Mayne, on Wednesday declined to say how the death of Mr. Yelchin, which is still under investigation by Los Angeles police, affected Fiat Chrysler's internal decision to move up the repair schedule.

"Our schedule was already accelerated," Mr. Mayne said on Wednesday, without providing further details on the decision.

The software changes, he said, will cause the vehicle to automatically shift into park mode if the driver's door opens and the shifter is in neutral, drive or reverse position.

"This prevents the car from moving if the driver exits the vehicle," he said.

Until Wednesday's announcement, the company had not specified how it would modify vehicles with the electronic shifter.

Those include 2014-15 Jeep Grand Cherokee S.U.V.s and some 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans. About 812,000 of the affected vehicles are in the United States, and more than 300,000 others are in Canada, Mexico and international markets.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had brought driver complaints about the shifter to Fiat Chrysler's attention last August. By the time the recall was announced in April, the automaker had received 700 complaints related to the shifter issue, including more than 200 crashes and at least 41 injuries. The problems typically involved the driver's thinking the car was safely in the parking gear, only to step out of the vehicle and have it roll away.

More from the New York Times :

Anton Yelchin, 'Star Trek' Actor, Dies at 27
Anton Yelchin's Death Highlights a Known Issue With Jeeps
Jeep That Crushed Anton Yelchin Had Been Recalled

But Mr. Yelchin's death was the first known fatal accident involving the recalled models. And it was cited by one industry analyst as a catalyst for Fiat Chrysler's decision to expedite repairs.

"It's tragic that this specific accident had to happen to call attention to this recall," said Karl Brauer, an analyst with the auto-research firm Kelley Blue Book.

But Fiat Chrysler had more than bad publicity to contend with. Now, more than ever before, vehicle safety and automakers' handling of problems and recalls, are under a federal spotlight.

The number of vehicle recalls has multiplied in the United States since 2014, when General Motors recalled millions of small cars with faulty ignitions that were ultimately tied to 124 deaths.

All told, the industry set a record of more than 60 million vehicles recalled that year, prompting federal regulators to step up their enforcement practices on safety violations.

GM, Fiat Chrysler and other automakers have been hit with heavy fines for failing to promptly fix defective models. Other government agencies, including the Justice Department, have also increased their scrutiny of the way car companies investigate and repair safety defects.

Fiat Chrysler, for example, agreed last year to pay federal penalties that could amount to $105 million for failing to meet its safety responsibilities in almost two dozen recalls dating to 2013.

"Over the past few years the number of recalls, and their size and scope, has just exploded," said Mr. Brauer. "But no recall can be considered routine any more." Particularly not when a celebrity is involved.

Fiat Chrysler has a lot at stake in reassuring consumers on the affected models, particularly the Grand Cherokee, one of its most profitable and best-selling vehicles.

So far this year, sales of Jeep SUVs have risen 16 percent in the United States, compared to an overall increase of 4 percent for all Fiat Chrysler vehicles.

While the gearshift on new Grand Cherokee models is different from that in the recalled vehicles, the rollaway incidents threaten to undermine the brand's image of rugged reliability.

Mr. Mayne, the company spokesman, said Fiat Chrysler had previously mailed out specific brochures to owners of the recalled Jeeps that explained how to properly shift their vehicles.

The brochure warns owners to "always verify your vehicle is in park!" It specifically notes that "your vehicle could move and injure you and others if it is not in park."

It is not yet known whether Mr. Yelchin had received the mailing, or was aware his Jeep Grand Cherokee was included in the recall. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department, Liliana Preciado, said on Wednesday that the actor's death remained under investigation.

Fiat Chrysler has said that it was "premature" to speculate on whether a mistake in shifting the car was the cause of his death.

Yet while it promised to conduct a thorough investigation, it became clear the company needed to address its recall plans quickly and publicly.

In its statement on Wednesday, the company said it had begun last week to provide its 2,400 dealers in the United States with the software required to modify the electronic gearshifts.

"Such advance planning is critical to efficient customer care and represents an acceleration — by several months — of the originally anticipated service launch," the company said.

The software will be available first for recalled vehicles with 3.6-liter and 5.7-liter engines, which Fiat Chrysler said account for a majority of the recalled cars and SUVs.

Service for vehicles with other engine types is imminent, the company said, without providing further details.

Mr. Brauer of Kelley Blue Book said that the accelerated recall may have been in the planning stages, but that the company left itself open to criticism by not publicizing the changes until after Mr. Yelchin died.

"Because they have been found lacking in the past on recalls, Fiat Chrysler has to prove they are serious about stepping up safety efforts," he said. "This accident was very bad timing for them, and these repairs are going to be watched closely by consumers."