Unintended Acceleration

“‘Hold on … hold on and pray … pray!’ And those were his last words.” So began Chairman Edolphus Towns’ House of Representatives hearings last month, “Toyota gas pedals: is the public at risk?” Towns was quoting a 911 call recorded from the passenger of a Toyota Lexus as it accelerated out of control and wove through traffic at high speed before careening off the end of the road and bursting into flames. If the crash hadn’t happened last August, lawmakers would have invented it, so perfect is it as a bludgeon for beating the world’s largest automaker.

One doesn’t want to make light of a family’s tragedy. The driver of the vehicle was one of those “heroic first responders” formerly known as cops—a member of the California Highway Patrol. The crash killed all four occupants of the car, including a 13-year-old girl. After treating us to those dramatic final words, the committee entertained a eulogy from the driver’s mother-in-law. Then they listened to tearful testimony from other drivers who suffered “unintended acceleration” in their Toyotas and lived to tell the tale. But the main event was the goring of Mr. Akio Toyoda himself, who patiently apologized and promised solutions as the congressmen made their statements and asked their questions for the cameras before leaving the chamber for more important business.

The only surprising thing about the statements from the dais was how obvious and pro forma they all seemed. Dennis Kucinich charged that Toyota’s efforts to cut costs by ordering parts from China caused the problem. One Democrat asked about the tort system in Japan, pointing out that in America the dead would be able to sue Toyota. In a real “wag the dog” twist, suits by the actual dead and injured don’t amount to much of a financial problem for Toyota—there simply are not enough dead and injured. By the same token the record fine of $16.4 million announced by NHTSA is reltively small change to a company with a market capitalization of over $125 billion. But a potential class action suit by millions of Toyota owners could cost the company $3 billion or more. Lawyers are hoping to assemble some 6 million Toyota owners into a class and recover $500 to $1000 per vehicle—the claimed loss of resale value for the vehicles because buyers would want a discount for cars that suddenly and unintentionally accelerate.

At the hearings, a Republican called for tort reform. Another Republican, this one from Utah, blamed the whole mess on Obama bailing out General Motors: now the jack-booted Fed was going after its rival. True to form, he also suggested that the problem may be the fault of the automobile unions. There was the obligatory holding up of two gas pedals for the cameras, as if to enlighten the viewers about the look of a gas pedal.

All this is a far cry from what those on the right feared when the government took over GM. The Wall Street Journal claimed Obama would destroy GM by forcing it to build “green cars.” Instead of forward thinking socialism, however, the administration has accelerated, perhaps unintendedly, toward the kind of business corporatism that used to sport a funny mustache. As Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, put it: “My job is to sell GM products, and Ford, and Chrysler.” Souder, through an interpreter, then reassured Mr. Toyoda, saying, “But I also have suppliers for you.”

To understand what was going on during the Congressional hearings and may well continue for years to come as the US tries to make a last-ditch effort to save its failed auto industry, you have to start with the understanding that the hearings had nothing to do with “saving American lives” or “preventing another tragedy.” Instead, they offered a chance to fight familiar battles knowing full well that highway safety improvements follow from quiet negotiations between industry and government regulators.

“Sudden acceleration” itself was a catch-all term first popularized by Ralph Nader’s Center for Auto Safety in the late 1970s. They asked the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to open an investigation into reports of GM cars suddenly accelerating. Investigations continued throughout the 1980s into a number of different vehicles from at least six manufacturers. In every case, complaints by consumers to the CAS prompted action; a small handful of complaints was all it took to bring attention to any given model. Several companies recalled vehicles after defects were found, mostly transmission linkages that could allow a vehicle to slip out of park. The GM recall campaign covering nearly 7 million vehicles never earned much press, nor did a similarly large Ford recall. But these recalls didn’t necessarily relate to sudden acceleration of the kind suggested by the term “sudden acceleration,” and of which the CAS accused these cars: full throttle acceleration that the vehicle’s brakes are unable to overcome. The CAS insisted the problem was widespread and even concocted a theory whereby newfangled emissions control computers were causing the problem. The NHTSA responded, reasonably enough, that the cars affected dated to 1973 and many didn’t have computers.

Among the smallest group of vehicles affected were those imported by Volkswagen of America. In 1980, the CAS asked the NHTSA to investigate VW Rabbits and Dashers after it received 16 reports of “sudden acceleration” from consumers. But it was another small volume VW vehicle that became the poster child for the problem: the Audi 5000. Like many other vehicles, the Audi 5000 may have had a problem with shifting out of park (it may also not have had this problem), but not one agency in the US or abroad found problems with the Audi 5000 and what the company preferred to call “unintended acceleration.” But in 1986, 60 Minutes took up the story and … well, you can guess. Tragic tales of sudden acceleration juxtaposed with executives in denial. Audi’s sales took a nose dive, despite the company’s best efforts, including hiring legendary race driver Bobby Unser to lead a PR campaign and allay fears. (YouTube’s got it.)

Since 2000 there have been 34 deaths in Toyotas afflicted with sudden acceleration from all causes—out of about 400,000 highway deaths in the same period. A study last December by the Consumers Union found that Toyotas were responsible for 41 percent of the sudden-acceleration incidents reported. But here’s the catch: 28 percent of the unintended-acceleration incidents in the same study happened in Fords. And the truth is, it’s still not clear that anything is really the matter with these cars. That’s why Tom Magliozzi (“Click” of NPR’s “Car Talk”) calls unintended acceleration the “chronic fatigue syndrome” of the automobile world. It can have several causes, from loose floor mats to big feet or bad shoes, to, yes, a throttle getting stuck, or, as may have been the case with the Lexus being driven by the California police officer, a gas pedal that won’t release. (Although, as Unser demonstrated in the Audi video, the brake is stronger than the gas, and should defeat it.) Such a rare event resulting from myriad possible causes poses a special problem for engineers. They need more data.

One obvious solution to the data problem is fitting each car with an Event Data Recorder similar to the “black boxes” used on airliners. Such devices were designed for cars over 40 years ago and were the subject of intensive research in the 1970s. But the research took a hiatus until about a decade ago. Meanwhile, of course, the technology had improved to replace electromechanical devices with solid state systems capable of recording far more data. These devices are only now slowly making their way into vehicles and even more slowly is their data becoming readily available. Look for reports that auto companies are suddenly in favor of a federal mandate on EDRs as they bow to the inevitable.

For all of the news media’s and government’s raking of Toyota over the coals, the real scandal here is not with the company but with the NHTSA. The safety agency was founded in the 1960s when domestic automakers owned the market and were knowingly selling dangerous vehicles. Chevrolet’s Corvair was the poster child for this way of operating after Ralph Nader labelled it “unsafe at any speed.” But far more people died simply because of the auto industry’s insistence on resisting any and all forms of safety technology designed to make vehicle crashes survivable. For example, industry propagated the idea that safety belts did more harm than good, helping to ensure that drivers resisted using them even after they were required.

There is no doubt that NHTSA is populated with sincere scientists and engineers who want to make driving safer. But since the Reagan years the agency has been successfully defunded by anti-regulatory forces. As a result, it has missed every major safety problem with vehicles over the last thirty years. It failed to prevent the epidemic of SUV rollovers and the sale of deadly Firestone tires; it failed to hold automakers accountable for poor airbag designs that killed passengers (mostly children) in low-speed crashes. Faced with industry and official opposition, the safety agency is forced to focus on driver behavior. Attention turns from safer cars to teenage drivers, drivers who send text messages, and drunk drivers. There’s no question that drunk driving is still the country’s biggest killer—but safer cars never hurt anyone.

But it is not enough to blame a penurious NHTSA for failing to save us from ourselves. Our driving brains have atrophied. In bygone days drivers were taught to deal with all manner of hazards, from carbon monoxide poisoning to blowouts, transmission, and brake failure. Today we are panicked by a little unintentional acceleration.

Drivers figure their cars’ computers will take care of everything; likewise the government figures the marketplace can ensure motor vehicle safety. Some members of the committee questioning Toyota last month argued that the market would punish Toyota more than Congress ever could. Its stock price plunged 20 percent in the first weeks of the crisis; it has recovered half that now, but is still skittish. And safety certainly does sell many consumers. But our current system of quiet cajoling of manufacturers punctuated by the occasional flareup and public attention may not be the most efficient use of resources.

Toyota’s real problem is that it has become an American car company, learning from our home-grown automakers how to work the system in Washington. It may be no coincidence that their fortunes follow those of the Republican party: its plants are all in Republican states and Florida. Perhaps soon our Democratic senators will be wearing General Motors lapel pins while those across the aisle sport the Toyota logo. When that time comes there really will be nothing left for mere citizens to do but hold on, hold on … and pray.

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