By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. vehicle safety officials said on Tuesday they have launched an investigation into about a million Fiat Chrysler Ram pickup trucks and SUVs prompted by complaints by some owners that the vehicles rolled away and crashed after being parked.
The issues being investigated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are similar the one cited in the June death in Los Angeles of Russian-born actor Anton Yelchin of the recent "Star Trek" movies.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV <0QXR.L> said it is cooperating with the government investigation covering the 2013-2016 model year Ram 1500 pickup truck and 2014-2016 Dodge Durango SUV. NHTSA said it has received reports from owners of 25 crashes and nine injuries alleging vehicle roll-away.
The agency's investigation could lead it to order a recall if the vehicles are found to be unsafe. In the meantime, the agency and Fiat Chrysler urged drivers to set the parking brake, in addition to placing the transmission into park, before exiting the vehicles.
The vehicles under investigation have an electronic rotary control for driver gear selections that differs from the shifter that Fiat Chrysler recalled earlier this year for roll-away issues.
In April, Fiat Chrysler recalled more than 1.1 million cars and SUVs worldwide because the vehicles may roll away after drivers exited, thinking they put them in park.
The problem in those recalled Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs has been tied to at least 68 injuries, 266 crashes and 308 reports of property damage, the U.S. government said. Fiat Chrysler's recall fix was a software upgrade that automatically shifts the vehicles to park in certain circumstances, and 53 percent of the vehicles have been equipped with the new software, the company said on Tuesday.
Yelchin, 27, was killed in a roll-away crash in a recalled 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Yelchin died after his SUV rolled backward in the steep driveway of his Los Angeles home and pinned him against a brick wall and a fence. In August, his parents sued Fiat Chrysler for negligence and product liability claims in California.
NHTSA blamed the recall on a confusing shifter design that resulted in higher error rates by drivers during attempted shifts to park. Fiat Chrysler has changed the design of the shifter to make it similar to a standard mechanical shifter.
U.S. regulators have investigated a number of roll-away issues in recent years.
On Tuesday, NHTSA also opened an investigation into 39,000 2012-2014 Jaguar Land Rover Ltd [TAMOJL.UL] Land Rover Evoque and 2013 Jaguar XF vehicles after seven complaints of vehicles rolling away and four injuries were reported. Like the Fiat Chrysler vehicles under investigation, they have rotary transmission switches to control driver gear selections.
A spokesman for Jaguar Land Rover said the company is cooperating with the investigation.
Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at the Autotrader.com online vehicle marketplace, said the move away from traditional gear shifts by a rising number of automakers has left many consumers confused in the driver's seat.
"We need to educate consumers as to how it works, and, if you're going to reinvent something that people are very familiar with, you'd better make sure it works perfectly," Krebs said.
In 2012, Honda Motor Co <7267.T> recalled 871,000 vehicles that could roll away after the ignition key has been removed. The Japanese automaker said a part in the ignition interlock could become damaged or worn, enabling the key to be removed even if the vehicle's transmission lever has not been shifted into park.