The SUV that rolled down a driveway and killed Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin was being recalled because the gear shifters have confused drivers, causing the vehicles to roll away unexpectedly, government records show.
Yelchin, 27, a rising actor best known for playing Chekov in the rebooted series, died Sunday after his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee pinned him against a mailbox pillar and security fence at his home, Los Angeles police said.
The 2015 model-year Grand Cherokees were part of a global recall of 1.1 million vehicles announced by automaker Fiat Chrysler in April, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show.
The agency urged the recall because of complaints from drivers who had trouble telling if they had put the automatic transmissions in park. If they were not in park and a driver left the vehicle, it could roll away.
Fiat Chrysler expected to send recall notification letters to owners on May 16, according to a memo to dealers, but it's not known whether Yelchin received or saw his letter. The company was working on a fix and expected to have a final remedy in October or later, the letter said.
Investigators were looking into the position of Yelchin's gear shift at the time of the accident, Officer Jane Kim said. The actor had gotten out of the vehicle momentarily, but police didn't say why he was behind it when it started rolling.
Fiat investigating incident
Fiat Chrysler said in a statement Monday that it was investigating and it was premature to speculate on the cause of the crash. It offered sympathies to Yelchin's friends and family.
The highway safety agency received 121 reports of crashes related to the gear shift problem, records show. Fiat Chrysler said in April that it's aware of 41 potentially related injuries.
The recalled vehicles, including nearly 812,000 in the U.S., have an electronic shift lever that toggles forward or backward to let the driver select the gear instead of moving along a track like a conventional shifter. A light shows which gear is selected, but to get from drive to park, drivers must push the lever forward three times.
The recalled vehicles sound a chime and issue a dashboard warning if the driver's door is opened while they are not in park. But the push-button ignition won't shut off the engine if not in park, increasing the risk of the vehicles rolling away after drivers have gotten out.
The Grand Cherokee gear shifters were changed in the 2016 model year so that it works like those in older cars.
Tributes abound for young actor
Coroner's officials ruled Yelchin's death an accident after an autopsy. The results of any toxicology tests would not be known for months, coroner spokesman Ed Winter said.
Yelchin's friends found him dead after he failed to show up for an audition early Sunday.
His death tragically cut short the promising career of an actor whom audiences were still getting to know and who had great artistic ambition. Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the series, comes out in July.
'He was equal parts serious thinker and the most fun little brother you could ever dream of.' - Actor-director Jodi Foster
Director J.J. Abrams, who cast Yelchin in the franchise, wrote in a statement that he was "brilliant ... kind ... funny as hell, and supremely talented."
His death was felt throughout the industry.
"What a rare and beautiful soul with his unstoppable passion for life," said Jodie Foster, whose 2011 film The Beaver co-starred Yelchin.
"He was equal parts serious thinker and the most fun little brother you could ever dream of."
Yelchin began acting as a child, taking small roles in independent films and various television shows, such as ER, The Practice, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. His breakout big-screen role came opposite Anthony Hopkins in 2001's Hearts in Atlantis.
Yelchin, an only child, was born in Russia. His parents were professional figure skaters who moved the family to the United States when Yelchin was a baby. He briefly flirted with skating lessons, too, before discovering that he wasn't very skilled on the ice. That led him to acting class.
"I loved the improvisation part of it the most, because it was a lot like just playing around with stuff. There was something about it that I just felt completely comfortable doing and happy doing," Yelchin told The Associated Press in 2011.
Yelchin could do big sci-fi franchises and vocal work in The Smurfs, while also appearing in more eccentric and artier fare, like Jim Jarmusch's vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive and Jeremy Saulnier's horror thriller Green Room, a cult favorite that came out earlier this year.
Gabe Klinger, who directed Yelchin in the upcoming film Porto, recalled a conversation with Jarmusch about Yelchin before Klinger cast him.
"Jim was like, `Watch out. Anton read Dostoyevsky when he was like 11 years old!"' Klinger said.
Watch Yelchin's 2013 interview with CBC about Only Lovers Left Alive and how he chooses his roles below.