• Mar 12th 2010 at 3:58PM
  • 69
No one wants to touch it. Not Toyota, not NHTSA, not any politician. But the issue has to be raised. Driver error is most likely at the root of these sudden unintended acceleration incidents.
Unintended acceleration is not a new issue for the auto industry. It's been around for decades and complaints have been filed against virtually every automaker. Even more telling, it was around long before electronic throttle controls (ETC) ever showed up in cars.

But we've managed to work ourselves into a hysteria where everyone automatically assumes that ETC is the culprit. That's a dangerous assumption that will likely lead us down a dead-end path, and could prevent us from implementing a fairly easy design change that could cure most of these incidents.

While it is possible that "ghosts" in the electronics could be causing a problem, no one has been able to find them. Toyota has done exhaustive investigations into this. So has every other major automaker. So have all the suppliers that make these systems. Independent laboratories, universities, and government agencies have investigated it. But none of them have ever found the problem. Never. And it is my contention that they probably never will.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.

Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University did come up with a contrived way of re-wiring Toyotas to induce unintended acceleration. But Toyota successfully (in my opinion) debunked his wiring scheme as something that could never happen in the real world.

We saw the same hysteria back in the late 1980s when Audi was in the headlines for unintended acceleration. None of the people involved in incidents back then believed they had their foot on the gas pedal. In fact, they'd swear on a Bible that they had their foot on the brake. And, they insisted, the harder they pushed on the brake the faster the car went.

The overhwelming majority of people who experience [SUI] are elderly drivers.
Many non-automotive experts tried to cook up explanations as to how there was some sort of gremlin that was causing the problem. None of them made any sense. NHTSA then conducted an exhaustive investigation at the time that dragged on for a couple of years. It finally concluded that the problem was nothing more than "pedal misapplication." That's its term for driver error.

There was something good that came out of all that. Audi came up with the idea of the shift-lock mechanism, which requires a driver to put his foot on the brake pedal before moving the shift-lever out of Park. That took care of most unintended acceleration cases, but not all of them.

The dirty little secret of unintended acceleration is that the overhwelming majority of people who experience it are elderly drivers, typically in their 60s and 70s. This has been true since about the time that the automatic transmission became available to the masses (that's right, there are virtually no cases of unintended acceleration involving cars with manual transmissions). In the past, whenever you read about some car driving through a storefront, or barreling down a sidewalk, it almost invariably involved an elderly driver. And the same is true today.

Some people ask me, "OK, how do you explain Toyota's higher incidence of sudden acceleration?" My answer is that Audi also had a higher incidence back in its day, but it still was an extremely rare event. In fact, from 1999 to 2009 Toyota's reported incidences of unintended acceleration were 0.009 incidents for every million cars it sold. Now that is an extraordinary low number.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio have all done statistical analyses of unintended acceleration, but their data are all over the map. It all depends on how you slice the numbers. Interestingly, they show that Ford has a higher number of reported incidents than Toyota does. But Toyota has a higher number of crashes.

Are the elderly people who buy Toyotas simply more likely to get in crashes due to unintended acceleration?
And that brings us back to the drivers. Years ago Consumer Reports did a hatchet job on the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, saying they were more prone to spin out if you accelerated up to highway speeds, yanked the steering wheel 90 degrees, then let go of the wheel. It was a bogus test, but it did get me to research the issue. As I dug into the data I was astonished to find that Omnis were more prone to get into accidents (of any kind) than Horizons even though there were absolutely identical cars. When I asked Chrysler's safety expert what was going on he said, "That's easy to explain. Who drives a Dodge? A young male who drives more aggressively. They simply get in more accidents than the kind of people who buy Plymouths."

Could it be that the elderly people who buy Toyotas are simply more likely to get in crashes due to unintended acceleration? I don't know, but it's something that should be looked into. I think that investigating the demographics and psychographics of the people who encounter this problem would be very illuminating. Last week I got a call from an elderly gentleman who said he has Type II diabetes, which has left him with virtually no feeling in his feet and he often can't tell which pedal he's pushing on. That makes me wonder if any of these Toyota drivers have Type II diabetes.

If the powers that be would entertain the idea that driver error may be at the heart of this problem, we could start to do something about it. If people are unknowingly stepping on the wrong pedal, maybe all we need to do is add a bigger gap between the gas and the brake pedals. Maybe it should be a foot-long gap.

Unless or until we admit that the drivers could be at fault, history suggests we're never going to find the answer.


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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      The real issue, folks, is that Toyota should be held criminally liable for every death or maiming caused by their products and now-obvious culture of corruption. Those impersonating true victims of Toyota's lies should be treated as the frauds that they are for stealing justice.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Cars are machines, not appliances. You can't separate vehicle-cause without also citing the driver.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Sure they should be held criminally liable for every death caused by their products. But so should every corporate company for their respective product. Let's not state the obvious. What makes this comment premature when applied to Toyota's products is that we are dealing with machines operated by people. Old people, young people, naive people, handicap people, and practically blind people in some cases. So until actual evidence comes out from OUR government investigation, showing fault in Toyota product, you have to consider driver error/hysteria and the large quantity of product on the roads. Especially since we are now seeing how easy it is to impersonate a true victim of SUA, yet our best brains can't recreate or prove SUA.
      • 5 Years Ago
      So if it is a "fairly easy design change that could cure most of these incidents."
      Why don't you explain what that design change is so we can all be awed by your brilliance? Just because they haven't found a cause doesn't mean that there isn't a cause. Better keep looking.
        • 5 Years Ago
        At this time, most automakers are going to add a gas/brake override. If both pedals are depressed at the same time...the accelerator will automatically be cut.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Pedal spacing. (That, plus the brake-shift interlock) Worked for Audi.
        • 5 Years Ago
        • 5 Years Ago
        Wut, no smokey burnouts.....dang-gummet! Now what am I supposed to do wit my hemi?
        • 5 Years Ago
        So the guy that was able to bring his Avalon into a dealer, with no floormats in the car, with it banging off the revlimiter, that wasn't electronics? I thought "stuck pedal" was ruled out in that case as well has floor mats.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @tourian, the only banging off the rev limiter going on is in the ABC video editing room, and in Prius bubble boy's head.

        Until NHTSA, or any INDEPENDENT party (not exponent) provides validity to ETC causes, then you can't use any reported cases as evidence. People are too untrustworthy, and naive when it comes to cars. There is too much ambiguity in all the reported cases. The only valid report is the catalyst case with the CHP driver, which was clearly a mat issue and the dealer records prove it. Beyond that, everything else you should take with a grain of salt.

        By the way, where is the LA times on reporting the shady financial BG of this James Sikes. They have had seven articles since the 9th on this runaway Prius, even a front pager, yet nothing on the shady BG info of this Corvette Club member.....hmmm.
        • 5 Years Ago
        manual transmission are the cure!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Earlier today, just for the sake of argument, I kept my foot on the accelerator pedal of my 2008 Prius at a steady cruise, reached up and pushed the gear selector switch to the left (the neutral position) and what do you know? The vehicle immediately went into neutral with no power applied to the wheels at all. Mass hysteria, humans are subject to it and this is a blatant example.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Well, I'm not familiar with the Airbus problem, but I am with SUA. I had a 1988 Cadillac that the throttle stuck wide open while my wife was driving it. She told me that it was very, very difficult to stop, but, by using both feet on the brake pedal, she was able to do so. When I got there, I popped the hood, and lo and behold! the throttle cable was kinked slightly at a support bracket and stuck in a wide open condition. I merely flipped it loose, drove the car home, and investigated. What I discovered was a bad IAC that could sometimes force the throttle completely open. ( for you naysayers- the IAC is a solenoid that opens the throttle slightly when the AC comes on, or other load is placed on the engine. The solenoid in this one had fractured, and a piece of it could fall down behind the rod and thus push the cable far beyond the designed limits of the IAC.) As I said, the slight kink (caused by the fact that the IAC pushes, not pulls, on the throttle cable) got stuck on a support bracket. This means that, at full throttle, there is no vacuum for the power brake booster. SInce the car was old at the time, and had accelerated to approximately 75 or so, it ran out of power boost before it could be stopped. This would make most people (particularly older people) think that the brakes had failed. I replaced the IAC ($15 at OReilly's) and the car never did it again. But, don't say that all cases of SUA are driver error. there are mechanical and electronic glitches that can cause this, and the driver would not be to blame.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I'm going with "all three". Driver error, sticking floor mats, and electronic throttle controls.
      • 5 Years Ago
      i just find this problem similar to people having hard time figuring out what's wrong with their computers when they go wrong(and you don't understand what those jibberish pop-ups mean)

      maybe one big difference is that cars act normal after the incident like nothing has happened
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow, you must be an idiot. The unintended acceleration numbers I posted are from 2009. That is way before this all broke. Do you understand? 2009?? In 2009, Toyota had 53% of all unintended acceleration claims. The 2010 number will probably be closer to 70%.

      Then next highest was VW/Audi with only 13.6%.....in 2009 again.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oops, that was supposed to be a "reply to".
      • 5 Years Ago
      Nice rational post. However I guess driver error is not the cause in each and every case of SUA. A few might be the car's fault.
      • 5 Years Ago
      People are really starting to straw man this entire Toyota SUA deal. Yes, every manufacturer has recalls, even the occasional dangerous one. The real issue here is Toyota having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do a recall. And then again and again to actually expand the recall to all involved vehicles. If they had just dropped it when they were first made aware, it would have barely made the nightly news. I work for GM, and the only delay for announcing a recall is if NHTSA/GM are still investigating the cause or what vehicles are involved. Other than that, letters go out. You might think that all car companies do what Toyota did, but you'd be wrong. Most know that just taking your lumps for a recall is 100 times better than trying to hide and get away with it.

      When it's all said and done, Toyota will have more than doubled the actual cost of a recall by trying to hide it. That's not counting lost sales or damaged reputation. That people think most car companies work like that is hilarious, at best.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The problem with driver error is you can't sue anyone. Thus these problems will never be attributed to driver error. Whether or not there is any underlying mechanical or electronic problem, this is being driven by trial lawyers, just as the Audi issue was years ago. Trial lawyers are a plague on this nation.
      • 5 Years Ago
      So, Toyota's are not defective, Toyota just has more defective drivers than any other manufacturer.
      • 5 Years Ago
      My question is why aren't we hearing about this happening all over the world. Surely Toyota uses the same technology all over the world?
        • 5 Years Ago
        @Steve care to provide a source stating that there's been a recall and fix internationally? First I've ever heard of it and it doesn't make a bit of sense for Toyota to do that.
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