Unintended Accleration? Beware of TV Network Fraud - Autoline with John McElroy

You've already seen the ABC News piece about a college professor rigging up a Toyota Avalon so he could induce a short circuit that would cause unintended acceleration. It's a frightening demonstration. And as detailed yesterday, it's also bad journalism.
We've seen this sort of thing happen before. Sometimes the major TV networks, despite all their gravitas and prestige, seem to toss their ethics out the window if they get the chance to show a gory story that involves automotive accidents.

There have been several instances in the past when investigative reports from network television showed horrific safety crashes that made the vehicles involved look dangerous. But it later turned out that those tests were fraudulent. Is ABC engaging in the same tactics?

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.

Back in 1987, CBS's 60 Minutes famously hired a plaintiff's witness, William Rosenbluth, who claimed he could cause an Audi to experience unintended acceleration. But he had to disassemble the transmission, drill holes in it and attach a tank of compressed air to make it happen-something that would never occur in the real world. But 60 Minutes never mentioned these facts, and presented Rosenbluth's test as proof that Audi had a defect. It single handedly nearly destroyed Audi in the American market. It took the company 20 years to recover.

In 1993, NBC's Dateline even more famously rigged up a Chevy pickup with explosives to make it "blow up real good" in front of the cameras. It presented this as proof that GM had defective pick-ups. GM hired investigators who ultimately found that the Dateline test was nothing but a fraud. Dateline was forced to publicly apologize.

ABC never really explained how this short circuit demonstration worked.
Back to the ABC News report. First off, ABC never really explained how this short circuit demonstration worked. It showed professor Dave Gilbert, from the automotive department at the University of Southern Illinois, with what looked like a volt meter with wires sticking out of it. He said that he could use that to induce a short circuit that would cause the car go to full-throttle acceleration, yet leave no error code that a mechanic could later trace. Maybe a more detailed technical explanation would be too much for a mass TV audience to understand, but ABC wants us to swallow Gilbert's demonstration with next to no details of what he was really doing.

Worse, ABC had no input or rebuttal from Toyota. It left out the company's version of this event, or maybe never even asked for it. Toyota says it met with Mr. Gilbert, he showed them a test, and they pointed out how this could not cause unintended acceleration. Now the company claims Gilbert showed a different type of test to ABC News. Toyota says it welcomes the chance to evaluate what he's doing and it invites ABC to bring its cameras back for that demonstration.

ABC also featured Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies on its report of the Avalon's unintended acceleration. He was presented as a safety advocate, but Mr. Kane makes his living by selling data and information to plaintiff attorneys, the very people who are going to be suing Toyota. Sean Kane has a vested interest in seeing Toyota sued, but ABC never mentioned that fact.

Plaintiff's witnesses like Sean Kane or William Rosenbluth make decent money testifying against car companies. They earn several hundred dollars an hour, whether they're on the stand or waiting around to be called to the stand. Presenting people like this as independent news sources, without identifying them for what they really are, violates all journalistic principles. Or at least it should.

Now, it could well turn out that Toyota does indeed have an electronics problem that causes unintended acceleration. But don't jump to conclusions based on last night's report from ABC News.

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