Runaway Toyotas? What About Driver Error? - Autoline with John McElroy

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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