Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Audi, Driver Error, Floor Mats, Auto Industry Tactics, NHTSA Failures

The LEMON LADY met a man who kindly stopped to speak with her.

He explained that he had had an Audi 5000. Remember those? 1980's? Maybe you're too young!

The continuing Auto Industry Whitewash remains unchanged to conceal their failures!

The list of Auto Industry Failures is lengthy, adequately documented, TOYOTA SUDDEN ACCELERATION = GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD!

TAKATA blasts drivers with SHRAPNEL...AND THEY KNEW!




Text below:
Toyota in the docket: acceleration troubles have long history for automakers

A Look Back at the Audi 5000 and Unintended Acceleration

Friday, March 14th, 2014 by Michael Barr
I was in high school in the late 1980′s when NHTSA (pronounced “nit-suh”), Transport Canada, and others studied complaints of unintended acceleration in Audi 5000 vehicles. Looking back on the Audi issues, and in light of my own recent role as an expert investigating complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, there appears to be a fundamental contradiction between the way that Audi’s problems are remembered now and what NHTSA had to say officially at the time.
Here’s an example from a pretty typical remembrance of what happened, from a 2007 article written “in defense of Audi”:
In 1989, after three years of study[], the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued their report on Audi’s “sudden unintended acceleration problem.” NHTSA’s findings fully exonerated Audi… The report concluded that the Audi’s pedal placement was different enough from American cars’ normal set-up (closer to each other) to cause some drivers to mistakenly press the gas instead of the brake.
And here’s what NHTSA’s official Audi 5000 report actually concluded:
Some versions of Audi idle-stabilization system were prone to defects which resulted in excessive idle speeds and brief unanticipated accelerations of up to 0.3g. These accelerations could not be the sole cause of [long-duration unintended acceleration incidents], but might have triggered some [of the long-duration incidents] by startling the driver.”
Contrary to the modern article, NHTSA’s original report most certainly did not “fully exonerate” Audi. Similarly, though there were differences in pedal configuration compared to other cars, NHTSA seems to have concluded that the first thing that happened was a sudden unexpected surge of engine power that startled drivers and that the pedal misapplication sometimes followed that.
This sequence of, first, a throttle malfunction and, then, pedal confusion was summarized in a 2012 review study by NHTSA:
Once an unintended acceleration had begun, in the Audi 5000, due to a failure in the idle-stabilizer system (producing an initial acceleration of 0.3g), pedal misapplication resulting from panic, confusion, or unfamiliarity with the Audi 5000 contributed to the severity of the incident.
The 1989 NHTSA report elaborates on the design of the throttle, which included an “idle-stabilization system” and documents that multiple “intermittent malfunctions of the electronic control unit were observed and recorded”. In a nutshell, the Audi 5000 had a main mechanical throttle control, wherein the gas pedal pushed and pulled on the throttle valve with a cable, as well as an electronic throttle control idle adjustment.

It is unclear whether the “electronic control unit” mentioned by NHTSA was purely electronic or if it also had embedded software. (ECU, in modern lingo, includes firmware.) It is also unclear what percentage of the Audi 5000 unintended acceleration complaints were short-duration events vs. long-duration events. If there was software in the ECU and short-duration events were more common, well that would lead to some interesting questions. Did NHTSA and the public learn all of the right lessons from the Audi 5000 troubles?

Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “A Look Back at the Audi 5000 and Unintended Acceleration”


MAY 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBER 5


Audi: Shifting the Blame

by Thomas Wathen
The Audi 5000 had all the earmarkings of an automotive success story. First introduced by Audi in 1978, the car was the flagship model for Audi's American distributor, Volkswagen of America. U.S. sales, which started strong in 1978 more than doubled by 1985. But with the increase in Audi 5000 sales came the increase in consumer complaints of an unexpected sudden acceleration. Without notice, Audi 5000 drivers complained, the car would accelerate - often with devastating results:
  • In Canton, Ohio, Kristi Bradowsky shifted the automatic transmission in her 1985 Audi 5000 from park to drive while waiting for her 6-year-old son Joshua to open the garage door. The car unexpectedly accelerated. Bradowsky hit the brakes but was unable to stop the rapid acceleration. The car sped into Joshua, dragging him through the garage and fatally crushing him against the back wall.
  • A Swedish woman in a 1983 Audi shifted from park to drive and the car suddenly accelerated into nearby pedestrians. Before the car could be stopped it had killed one person and injured another.
Since the late 1970s hundreds of Audi drivers in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe have reported sudden acceleration problems with the Audi 5000 series or its foreign equivalent. There have been 1500 sudden acceleration accidents reported in Audi 5000s and more than 400 people have been injured when their Audi 5000s sped out of control in the United States. Seven people have died. The accidents have been strikingly similar. The car idles normally in the "park" position, but when the automatic transmission is shifted into "drive" or "reverse," the car suddenly accelerates without warning. Drivers try braking, but the car fails to stop before hitting cars, trees, walls or people. Despite the growing number of accidents blamed on the Audi's sudden acceleration, Audi AG - the West German affiliate of Volkswagen that makes the Audi 5000 - has steadfastly denied that the car is defective. Instead, Audi has consistently blamed the cars' drivers for the mishaps. But despite the company's claims, as accident reports have climbed, sales for the Audi 5000 have plummeted in the last year largely due to the U.S. consumers who have waged an unprecedented fight against the giant West German automaker. So effective have consumers been at publicizing the car's alleged defects and the company's lack of response, that other foreign and domestic automobile manufacturers now worry that Audi's sudden acceleration problem will focus attention on what many perceive to be an industry-wide phenomenon. What singles out the Audi sudden acceleration problem, however, is the sheer number of accidents reported in the 19781987 Audi 5000 cars. The Audi 5000's sudden acceleration occurs more frequently than any auto defect ever investigated by the U.S. government. By 1987, one out of every 170 Audi 5000s had had a sudden acceleration accident, according to the Center For Auto Safety (CAS), a national consumer organization. By comparison, the infamous Firestone 500 tires were recalled with an accident rate of 1-in15,000. "Until these vehicles are recalled, Audi 5000 owners take their five's in their hands when they shift from park to drive or reverse," said Clarence Ditlow, CAS's executive director. The Art of Engineering The Audi 5000 series, which retails for $23,000, was designed to compete with the Volvo, BMW, Cadillac and other luxury cars. Marketed under the slogan, "Audi - The Art of Engineering," Audi 5000 sales rose signficantly after the car was redesigned in 1984. And it received high acclaim from industry trade publications. "Audi's 5000 sedan has been a benchmark in its class for several years," noted the AAA newsletter last year. Car and Driver Magazine repeatedly put the Audi 5000 on its annual top 10 list of cars. The car did particularly well in the lucrative New York Metropolitan area and sales were expanding to other major urban markets as well. Today, there are an estimated quarter of a million Audi 5000 cars on the road in the United States. But by early 1982, 107 consumers had complained to Audi about a sudden acceleration accident. And when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from auto defects, looked into the accidents, Audi conducted the first of five recalls to diffuse the problem. Fixing The Driver Although Audi said it could find nothing wrong with the cars themselves, it theorized to NHTSA that a floor mat stuck underneath the accelerator pedal could cause the accelerator to stick while decelerating. To remedy this, Audi proposed installing a plastic device to keep the pedal clear of the floormat. In April, 1982, NHTSA agreed and all 1978 to 1982 cars were recalled. "Usually a manufacturer recalls a car to fix a defect they found in the car," Dan Howell of CAS said. "But in 1982, Audi did a recall that was aimed at fixing the drivers. By installing a floor mat device Audi could give the appearance of fixing the car to the government, but deny there was any mechanical problem with the cars." Later, when CAS reported receiving accident reports on the Audi 5000, despite the floor mat recall, NHTSA once again put pressure on Audi to take action. And again Audi argued that the problem was caused by the driver and not the car. This time Audi said drivers unfamiliar with the car may have been unknowingly stepping on both the brake and the accelerator pedal when they applied the brake. In late 1983 Audi initiated a second recall of the car. This time the company installed a plate to elevate the brake pedal above the accelerator pedal to make it more difficult for a person to step on the two pedals at once without realizing it. The device was installed on all 1978 through 1983 cars and incorporated into the later models. Audi Victims Network Despite the floor mat and the staggered pedals, however, Audi sudden acceleration accidents continued. In January of 1984, Alice Weinstein prepared to back out of her driveway by shifting her Audi 5000 transmission from park into reverse. When she did, the car sped into a snowbank. When she took the car to her New York dealer, the dealer told her that nothing was wrong with the car and that she must have unwittingly stepped on the gas. Despite some misgivings, Weinstein accepted the explanation and kept driving the car. Almost a year later Weinstein got into her car with her teen-aged daughter. She shifted the car from park to drive, and the car suddenly accelerated again. This time the car shot forward across the lawn and hit a tree, sending Alice Weinstein and her daughter into the windshield. Lying in her hospital bed a day later, a friend brought her the names of five other people who had had similar accidents. "Shock turned into outrage, and at that moment I decided to do something," Weinstein said. Weinstein began collecting the names of Audi drivers who had had sudden acceleration accidents - one of the names she got was Marion Weisfelner's. Together, they created a network of 30 Audi victims. With the assistance of Dan Howell at the Center For Auto Safety, Weinstein and the other New York area victims were put in touch with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), New York's largest consumer organization. NYPIRG contacted the New York Attorney General, Robert Abrams, and on March 19th, CAS, NYPIRG, Abrams, Alice Weinstein and other victims announced at a press conference that they were petitioning NHTSA to investigate and recall the car. "The very high rate of reported runaway Audis contradicts the manufacturer's shameless efforts to blame these incidents on the drivers," Abrams said at the news conference. "There is obviously something very wrong with this car, and, because of the large number of New Yorkers involved, we are joining in the effort to get the responsible federal agency to do something about it." Emboldened by the news conference, the New York area victims worked with NYPIRG to form their own organization - the Audi Victims Network. Two months later the network had 100 members, and Audi officials were concerned enough about the group's influence that when they were asked to meet with the network in Plainview, New York, they accepted. Short People When the three executives of Volkswagen of America arrived at the Plainview Jewish Community Center on May 28th, they walked into a public relations nightmare. Dozens of people were filling out accident reports and taking stacks of flyers that dubbed the car a "runaway Audi." In all, over a hundred owners and victims gathered to confront the company. "This is not an easy meeting for us," said Phil Hutchinson, vice president of Volkswagen of America, in opening the meeting. Bob Cameron, manager of product liaison, then reported the results of Audi's investigation into 93 cars that had had a sudden acceleration accident. "Coming from the technical analysis, we have been unable to find any shortcomings with the car," Cameron said. But, he said, there were common traits shared by all the sudden acceleration accident victims: the driver's were inexperienced with Audi 5000s, most did not own the car, most instances occurred below 6,000 miles and "most of the drivers were smaller than average, below five foot five inches." "Now, what does all this mean?" Tom McDonald, Audi Director of Public Affairs, asked the audience rhetorically. "Basically, it means what we have said in the past. We affirm that we can not find any technical problem with the vehicle or any of the systems within the vehicle. It leaves us to believe that owners may inadvertently or drivers may inadvertently depress the accelerator pedal when they wish to press the brake pedal," McDonald answered. McDonald then went on to announce that Audi would conduct its third recall, "because of this inadvertent application of the gas pedal rather than the brake pedal." In the recall, McDonald said, Audi would readjust the accelerator pedal and brake pedal to "provide more foot room and thereby reduce the possibility of the misapplication of the pedals." He said that Audi would also provide free audio cassettes to Audi drivers "to re-acquaint drivers with proper seating position and driver controls." Members of the Audi Victims Network were outraged at the company's presentation. "I can't believe how stupid you must think we all are," Richard Weinstein, Alice Weinstein's husband, told the Audi executives, "trying to tell us that we are the problem." NYPIRG surveyed over 200 drivers that experienced sudden acceleration problems and found many of the company's claims unfounded. "The survey showed that these drivers looked pretty normal," said Dr. Hugh Caffey, a bio-statistician who helped on the survey. "If anything stood out about them, it was that they tended to be familiar with the car, had driven many years and were in the safest driving ages." The NYPIRG survey also showed that the average height for men and women who had experienced Audi's sudden acceleration were, on average, a full inch above the national height average reported by the National Center For Health Statistics. And 85 percent of the drivers reported having their foot on the brake at the onset of acceleration. Most of those who did not, had the car suddenly accelerate while driving. Less than 10 percent of the people said the brakes eventually stopped the car. Automatic Shift Lock Device Television reports of the Plainview meeting, coupled with continuing pressure from the victims network, caused sales to drop even further in the summer of 1986. So fast was word spreading on the Audi 5000 in New York City, that parking garages began posting signs refusing to park Audi 5000 cars. Audi never initiated the third recall. Instead it announced in July 1986, a fourth recall that it said would stop most of the sudden acceleration problems once and for all. Audi touted what they called an "automatic shift lock device" as the solution. Although the name implies that a modification is being made to the automatic transmission, the device merely connects a sensor to the brake lights so that drivers must touch the brake pedal before moving the gear shift out of the park position. The Audi Victims Network says the device will not address the accidents documented by their group. To promote the shift lock device, Audi took out television advertisements in the New York City media market. The ads featured a man identified as head of the "Citizens For Safer Highways," sitting in an office with the nation's capital in the background. He discussed sudden acceleration as an industry-wide problem and claimed that only Audi was doing something to solve the problem - installing the automatic shift lock device. He ended by thanking the company. But the advertisements backfired. In an expose, television consumer reporter Betty Furness, of WNBC-TV in New York, reported that Citizens For Safer Highways was a one man organization and that the man was being paid by Audi. The ads were quickly pulled and the automatic shift lock device was temporarily discredited. Even the auto industry's leading newspaper, Automotive News, sharply criticized Audi's response to the problem. "Audi needs to convince the public it has solved the deadly sudden acceleration problem. It needs to present an explanation that makes sense and can be believed. And it hasn't done so," the News wrote in December, 1986. NHTSA and Audi In August 1986, NHTSA upgraded the Audi 5000 case to a formal "defect investigation" - the highest priority the agency has for an investigation. And a special segment of "60 Minutes" coupled with pressure from Congress, spurred NHTSA to act quickly. In December, 1986 NHTSA announced that it would request Audi to voluntarily recall its 5000 series cars. The Audi 5000 had become the most publicized auto defect since the Ford Pinto and the General Motors Corvair. But in its recall, NHTSA merely asked Audi to install the shift lock device and change idle stabilizer valves, two things the company was already doing. And even Audi maintained that while a faulty idle stabilizer valve may cause irregular idle, it could not induce sudden acceleration. "NHTSA gave Audi a Christmas gift," said Howell of CAS. "They said go ahead and do what you are doing, but do it under the auspices of a safety recall." Audi eagerly accepted the rehabilitation of the shift lock device as a credible answer to sudden acceleration and attempted to rehabilitate its image. The company modified its public relations line by saying Audi was no longer blaming the drivers for the problem and that the new device would correct the problem with the car. "We started saying it was driver error," Audi General Sales Manager James G. Wolter told reporters on his publicity tour. "If there is anything we wish we could recall, it's the statement 'driver error.' The intent was not to blame the drivers. The intent was to say that we can't find anything wrong with the car. To come to our own logical conclusion that it was driver error was a mistake."  NHTSA Files  NHTSA's support of Audi's shiftlock solution followed almost five years of failure by the agency to properly investigate the Audi 5000, Howell said.  NHTSA files reveal that on April 14, 1982, Audi provided the agency with information showing that the accident rate for the Audi 5000 sudden acceleration defect were already 1 in 900, one of the highest on record. The information also alluded to problems in the cruise control systems and in the transmission. Instead of following up these leads, the agency accepted a suggestion by Audi management that a floor mat interfering with the pedals was causing the sudden acceleration, and it stopped its investigation into the car. So poor was NHTSA's investigation, that even though the agency formally requested copies of all the accident reports, a request with which an auto company must comply, Audi did not provide the complaints and NHTSA officials did not take any follow-up action to obtain them. Without the 107 complaints, NHTSA could not verify the conclusions Audi was presenting. And NHTSA accepted Audi's floor mat explanation even though it had information showing that Audi had only inspected a small percentage of the reported cars and even though the company had failed to provide proof that floor mats were responsible for the sudden acceleration accidents. Throughout its investigations NHTSA failed to ask basic questions that could lead to an explanation of these accidents. NHTSA waited three months after they announced their full defect investigation in August 1986 before asking the company for the full list of accident reports. NHTSA also knew, even before they endorsed the shift lock device on December 23, 1986, that drivers who had the device installed in their cars were reporting accidents. In a letter to Diane Steed, CAS's Clarence Ditlow wrote on January 30, 1987, "Less than two months after those installations began, and before you asked Audi to install the devices as part of a safety recall, the Center For Auto Safety warned that the devices were not working. Three accidents had already occurred in shift-lock equipped Audis - an accident rate that was higher than on Audis without the device." So far, of the small number of cars which do have the shift-lock device, nearly 40 accidents have been reported, according to CAS. "Steed not only knew in advance that the shift lock was not working," said Howell, but "she had good reason to know that such a device could never work. The shift lock flies in the face of the facts of virtually every runaway Audi accident ever reported to NHTSA. In those cases, drivers consistently report that their foot was not on the accelerator when they shifted from park to drive or reverse - yet the car still accelerated uncontrollably," Howell said. The Audi Outlook  Despite Audi's shift-lock recall and new public relations approach, sales for February, 1987 were down 56 percent from the year before for the 5000 series and down 58 percent for Audi cars overall. In April, Audi took two new steps to bolster its declining image. First, the company sent certificates worth $5000 off the purchase of any new 1987 Audi to owners of 1984 to 1986 cars. "What we're trying to do is show our loyal owner base that we're absolutely committed to the American market," an Audi spokesperson told Automotive News. Resale values have dropped drastically for Audi 5000 owners. Owners with 1986 cars find their cars are only getting $11,000, a 50 percent depreciation in one year. The 1984 cars are only getting $2,000 on trade-ins and older cars are virtually untradable. Audi also announced that they were discontinuing the Audi 5000 name and starting in 1988, the car would be known as the Audi 100, a name the car started under in Europe. But Weinstein, of the Audi Victims Network, says cosmetic changes aren't the answer. "Audi can't hide from this problem or try to buy off the consumers," Weinstein said. "People know that this is a bad car and nobody is going to buy it until the company finds the problem and fixes it." p

Defective Regulation: Accelerating Accidents

On August 15, 1986, the same day that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it would conduct a defect investigation for the Audi 5000, it dropped a similar investigation of sudden acceleration in 60 million 1973 to 1986 General Motors cars with automatic transmissions. The investigation involved over 3,000 accidents and 100 deaths with sudden ' acceleration accidents. The agency dismissed the problem as being one which was caused primarily by driver error. "There's been a trend the last 10 years to blame the manufacturer and not the limitations of the car or the driver," Jeff Miller, deputy administrator for NHTSA, told the Chicago Tribune. "Our society is litigation happy. People tend to point the blame anywhere but at themselves. A person drives a car half stoned and gets in an accident, he still blames the car." But despite NHTSA's explanation for the problem, sudden acceleration remains an industry-wide concern. NHTSA is investigating sudden acceleration in 1980-85 Nissan 280z/300z cars, 1983-84 AMC Alliance/Encore models, 1981-84 Toyota Cressidas and 1982-85 General Motors J-cars, 1985-86 Dodge-Plymouth Colts and 198687 Honda Accords LXI. But the agency is not expected to take action on these cases. Since 1980 NHTSA has closed sudden acceleration investigations into 13 car models. Although the auto industry and NHTSA publicly claim that driver error is responsible for sudden acceleration problems, private engineers have theorized that faulty computer components could cause the computer control systems to malfunction, sending messages to the car to accelerate when it should not. In some cases, these malfunctions would not leave any evidence that could easily be detected. "Most people are focusing on the car's electronic controls," says Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety (CAS). "The person shifts and for some reason the computer gives the wrong signal and opens up the throttle." "This is a new generation of defects for a new generation of high technology cars," adds Dan Howell also of CAS. He points out that unlike the earlier defect investigations that often involved a single defective part, sudden acceleration is an example of a system failure. He faults Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole for NHTSA's failure to deal with sudden acceleration. "Her approach of cutting back on staff and slashing investigations has left NHTSA helpless to deal with the problems present in complex technology," Howell says. The Audi 5000's high accident rate coupled with pressure from the Audi Victims Network has focused attention on the problem for the first time, and the automobile industry is nervous. Earlier this year the Detroit-based Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association's committee met in a closed meeting to take a public stand on the issue. The Knight-Ridder News Service, quoting an unnamed source in the meeting, said that the group wanted to address the issue "before Audi's dilemma begins to wash over the entire industry." The news service also quoted Greg Dana, an executive with the Auto Importers of America as saying, "We've chatted at recent meetings, saying that if Audi can be hit, any of us could, too, and that maybe we need a way to handle this to be prepared in [the] event this steamrolls."
-Thomas A. Wathen

Thomas A. Wathen is Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and has worked extensively on auto safety issues.

The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBER 5

Audi: Shifting the Blame

by Thomas Wathen


DOT-TSC-NHTSA-88-4 September, 1988

Final Report

Appendix H:

Study of Mechanical and Driver - Related

Systems of the Audi 5000 Capable of

Producing Uncontrolled Sudden Acceleration


Gary Carr

John Pollard

Don Sussman

Robert Walter

Herbert Weinstock

U.S. Department of Transportation

Research and Special Programs


Transportation Systems Center

Cambridge, MA 02142

By Raymond Paul Johnson and Cory G. Lee

It was the perfect day that turned into a nightmare. Bulent and Anne Ezal were on a trip to Big Sur, traveling one of the most ruggedly beautiful stretches of the California coastline. As lunchtime drew near, Bulent eased the couple’s Toyota Camry into a parking space near a coastal restaurant hugging the steep and rocky bluff overlooking the waves.
Without warning, the vehicle suddenly shot ahead and careened over the cliff. The couple held on as the Toyota plummeted 75 feet, smashing onto the surf-washed rocks below.

Miraculously, Bulent suffered few permanent physical injuries. But his beloved wife Anne died a horrifying death.

This Toyota Camry went off a cliff and plunged 75 feet, killing a passenger, and her husband at the wheel could do nothing to stop it
This Toyota Camry went off a cliff and plunged 75 feet, killing a passenger, and her husband at the wheel could do nothing to stop it

The tragedy of that day has been replicated in accidents all over America, creating a tidal wave of trouble for an auto manufacturer that once commanded the pinnacle of consumer trust. Toyota has been called to task by congressional investigators, attorneys and the general public over a phenomenon that has afflicted thousands of vehicles, maimed and killed motorists, and earned its own moniker: sudden unintended acceleration.

Toyota of late has embraced explanations that challenged credulity, suggesting that unintended accelerations can be caused by “sticky gas pedals” or “all-weather floor mats” that can jam the pedal.

In the Ezals’ case, as in many other reported runaway accelerations, their Toyota did not have all-weather floor mats or the specific gas pedals identified in Toyota’s press releases. So what happened?

The most likely explanations can be discerned with a look at the past, present and future – a look back in history, an examination of pivotal issues being publicly disregarded by Toyota, and the consideration of new techniques for discovering the root cause of this deadly defect.

A brief history of uncontrolled accelerations

The syndrome now afflicting Toyotas may be news to many, but unintended accelerations are nothing new in the auto industry.

In 1978, Volkswagen began selling the first Audi 5000s in the United States. Sales were strong, with sales of the Audi flagship doubling in its first seven years in the U.S. market. But these popular vehicles had a recurring problem: uncontrolled acceleration.
From 1978 to 1987, consumers reported more than 1,500 crashes involving sudden acceleration of Audi 5000s, with 400 reported injuries and seven fatalities. Many of the crashes were similar: the car was idling with the automatic transmission in “park,” the driver shifted into “drive” or “reverse,” and the car would, suddenly and without warning, wildly accelerate. Often the Audis could not be stopped before hitting other cars, trees, walls, or even people.

One of those killed was six-year-old Joshua Bradosky. He died when an Audi 5000, driven by his mother, surged forward, crashing him through a garage and pinning him to the garage wall.
Audi’s response was, essentially: the car is not defective, the drivers are. Audi’s public relations staff accused the drivers, emphasizing that “maybe people are putting their foot on the wrong pedal.”
The response by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): The car is not defective; the drivers are. In 1989, NHTSA completed its investigation into “sudden acceleration incidents” (“SAI”), concluding, “most SAI probably involve the driver unintentionally pressing the accelerator when braking was intended.” In short, despite the increased frequency of sudden accelerations in certain model vehicles, and the driver (in virtually every incident) reporting “foot on the brake” rather than the accelerator, NHTSA concluded it was all merely the result of the driver pressing the wrong pedal.

Despite this ultimate “finding” by NHTSA, as a result of prior work by trial attorneys, journalists, safety advocates, and consumers, the Audi 5000 had been recalled several times to correct problems that NHTSA itself acknowledged could cause sudden acceleration.

In 1982, in a move shockingly similar to today’s Toyota headlines, NHTSA forced the recall of the Audi 5000 because the driver’s floor mats could cause sudden acceleration. Later, the placement of the brake pedal was blamed for some sudden accelerations, and the Audi 5000 was recalled again for repairs.
In 1987, NHTSA identified defects that could cause “engine surge” and demanded the recall of some Audi 5000s yet again. Finally, that same year, the Audi 5000 was recalled to retrofit an automatic shift lock to prevent “unexpected, sudden acceleration, without prior warning.” Audi touted this final recall as the solution to most of the sudden accelerations incidents.

With NHTSA’s investigation into “sudden acceleration incidents” closed, and most unintended accelerations attributed to driver error, NHTSA made no further recalls of the Audi 5000. Long after the recalls, however, consumers continued to report runaway accelerations with the Audi 5000, even on vehicles that received all recall repairs.

The 1990s and Ford Motor Company
In the 1990s, consumers began to report that automobiles with popular cruise control systems had runaway accelerations. Ford Motor Company absorbed much of the criticism, with numerous lawsuits filed against it as well as multiple NHTSA recalls related to sudden acceleration.
Unlike Audi’s problem with the Audi 5000, Ford’s runaway acceleration problems crossed into many models and various brands: Aerostars, Contours, Escapes, Explorers, F-Series Trucks, Focus Hatchbacks, Tauruses, Mercury Mystiques and Mercury Sables.

Most of these Ford recalls involved the cruise control system. There was particular focus on a design that allowed contaminants into the speed control cable conduit or caused damage to the cable itself, resulting in either a wide-open throttle or surging throttle.

However, the recalls ignored key consumer concerns regarding runaway accelerations. Prominent among them was whether transient electromagnetic interference (EMI) could cause these unwanted accelerations. Some experts believed that transient EMI could cause the electronic cruise control to signal the throttle to open, despite the absence of accelerator input.
In addition, Ford was privy to information indicating that EMI could cause vehicles to suddenly accelerate out-of-control. Indeed, in internal investigations on sudden acceleration, Ford concluded that sudden unintended acceleration incidents increased with the introduction of broadly applied electronics in 1984. Ford also documented in internal memoranda that various electromagnetic failures, including EMI, could cause sudden unintended acceleration.
Ford apparently learned that “the vehicle speed maintenance control system or ‘cruise control system’ . . . is capable in the event of ‘failure or malfunction’ of opening the throttle a substantial amount without driver input.” Indeed, former Ford employees have admitted that unwanted electrical impulses could open the throttle, causing sudden unintended acceleration.
Ford generally denied virtually all defect claims related to runaway accelerations, often citing the 1989 NHTSA report of “drive pedal” error as evidence. However, Ford employees apparently experienced incidents of sudden unintended acceleration, with no reproducible evidence of the event.
In one reported incident, a Ford engineer, investigating a Ford Expedition for cruise control problems, found that after pressing the “resume” button, “the vehicle kept accelerating beyond the set speed and wouldn’t respond to brakes or the off switch.” Upon examining the truck, however, Ford could not find anything out of the ordinary.
In another reported incident, during a test drive of a Mercury Grand Marquis, a Ford employee shifted into “drive” and the engine raced with the wheels spinning, as if the accelerator were floored. The employee stopped the car by braking as hard as he could. The car later checked out normal.
In yet another reported incident, a Ford employee crashed an experimental Aerostar prototype. After shifting into gear, the vehicle accelerated to full throttle, tires squealing. The employee removed his foot from all pedals, thinking he had accidentally floored the accelerator, but the van continued to accelerate. He shifted into “park” but could not avoid crashing into a wall.

Despite the above, Ford and virtually the entire industry continued to rebuff opinions that EMI could cause runaway accelerations, especially during related litigations.

The 2000s bring trouble for Toyota/Lexus

On August 28, 2009, with a California Highway Patrol Officer at the wheel, a passenger in a new Lexus ES 350 made a frantic call to 911. Their vehicle was out-of-control, weaving through traffic at 120 miles per hour. The passenger’s final frantic words were “we’re in trouble . . . there’s no brakes.” The driver, his wife, teenage daughter, and brother-in-law, the 911 caller, were all killed as the vehicle slammed into another car and careened down an embankment.
Since 2001, consumers have lodged more than a thousand reports of sudden unintended acceleration in Lexus and Toyota vehicles. NHTSA officials told a Congressional committee in early March that the agency had received 52 complaints of fatalities involving sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000. A Los Angeles Times review of public records and interviews with authorities found at least 56 deaths blamed on sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. In contrast, sudden unintended acceleration in all other vehicles made by other manufacturers resulted in only 11 deaths.
Toyota first blamed these unintended accelerations on the drivers, then admitted that its all-weather floor mats could jam the accelerator pedal on certain models. Hoping to rectify the floor-mat problem, in September 2009 Toyota recalled millions of vehicles, including Camrys, Priuses, Avalons, Tacomas, Tundras, and Lexus models.

The remains of the Toyota Camry in which Anne Ezal died
The remains of the Toyota Camry in which Anne Ezal died

The floor mat recall, however, did not end the inquiry. NHTSA, in an unprecedented rebuke, responded to Toyota’s claim that no defects existed in their vehicles with compatible and properly secured floor mats. NHTSA publicly stated that it recognized an “underlying defect” in the design of the Toyota and Lexus accelerator pedals and the drivers’ foot wells.

In January 2010, Toyota announced yet another related recall. This one recalled millions of more vehicles to correct “sticking accelerator pedals.” Toyota’s press release stated that its continuing investigation found that certain accelerator pedals could mechanically stick in a partially depressed position, or return slowing to the idle position. Later in January, Toyota announced an unprecedented decision to halt sales and production of eight models until it could determine how to stop the gas pedals from sticking and causing unintended accelerations.

However, we believe that Toyota’s runaway acceleration problems will not end at “jamming floor mats” or “sticky gas pedals.” A telling point is that complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles increased dramatically after employment of electronic throttles in the last decade.

In some models, sudden acceleration complaints increased five-fold after introduction of electronic throttles.

The ignored issue and solutions

Like the proverbial “elephant in the room”, the EMI issue must be directly addressed by Toyota and the rest of the auto industry. EMI is real. The aerospace industry has been dealing with the ramifications of EMI/EMC (electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility) since the 1960s. Said simply: The more sophisticated electronics one stuffs into a small area, the more lethal the EMI/EMC issue.

We now rely on an unprecedented number of electronic gizmos in every new car–some more than others. Toyota, as the largest automobile manufacturer and an undisputed leader in electronic advances for automobiles, is at the forefront. As such, and with its current runaway acceleration woes, Toyota will have to face the issue first.


The electronic throttle system that Toyota introduced at the turn of the 21st Century replaced the mechanical link (usually a steel cable) between the driver’s foot and the engine’s acceleration with a series of sensors, microprocessors, electric motors and wiring. These devices were located among a growing number of additional sensors, processors, and wiring for a myriad of other electronic subsystems in a relatively small space in the vehicle’s engine area. This, in and of itself, is a classic recipe for EMI/EMC problems.

As the aerospace industry learned decades ago, manufacturers cannot simply continue to jam electronic devices into small areas without testing for and designing away EMI dangers. If they do, spurious signals that inadvertently and randomly excite near-by electronics are inevitable. If those near-by electronics include the engine control unit (or electronic throttle system), runaway accelerations are to be anticipated.

EMI/EMC dangers can include stray voltage, algorithm defects in the related software of the microprocessor components, and random signals that excite other subsystems (such as opening throttle control units).

Toyota, understandably, wants a “quick fix” to its runaway acceleration problems. Sales, reputation and peoples’ lives depend on it. But limiting its investigations to mechanical things such as “jamming floor mats” and “sticky gas pedals” is a tragic mistake. Toyota (and the industry as a whole) can no longer afford to disregard “the elephant in the room”: EMI/EMC.

The solution is not a “quick fix.” Eliminating EMI/EMC dangers is a system design and test issue that affects every electronic component and computer-driven subsystem in the vehicle. And the more electronic components and microprocessors in a vehicle, the deeper and darker the problem.

Besides testing for EMI/EMC dangers at each step of the design process, safety analyses must be done. In particular, Failure Modes and Effects Analyses (FMEA) must be conducted to show that the system-design is free of EMI dangers. Through careful design, testing and on-going FMEA, electronic devices can be safely integrated, insulated and, if need be, isolated, and all associated algorithms can be verified and validated to virtually eliminate the risk of EMI. In more than 25 years of product liability litigation, however, we have yet to see an FMEA from any auto manufacturer that comes remotely close to accomplishing and documenting the above.

Now is the time. Toyota, as industry leader and saddled with its current “runaway acceleration” problems, should lead the way. Future designs must thoroughly address EMI/EMC from the ground up. Lives depend on it.

But what about the Toyota vehicles already on the road? Retrofit and perhaps redesign is necessary.

If Toyota has not already done so internally, it should immediately amass what the aerospace industry calls a “tiger team” of knowledgeable engineers across multiple disciplines (including auto design, electronics, software and safety engineers) to beat back its deadly problems. Suspect components and software should be modified. Susceptible electronic devices, including wiring and sensitive components, should be shielded, insulated and if necessary isolated or retrofitted to eliminate EMI dangers.

The role of product liability litigation

For well over 30 years, product liability litigation has been at the forefront of auto safety. Think Pinto “exploding gas tanks,” interior padding, airbag safety, roll-over propensity, etc. Litigation is especially effective where industry progress is thwarted by profit concerns and federal regulation is dwarfed by politics.

Even with today’s government and media interest in sudden unintended acceleration, troubles loom and questions remain unanswered. Toyota’s inconsistent mechanical “explanations,” the fact that the issue isn’t isolated to just one manufacturer, the reality of EMI/EMC dangers and the essential disregard of those threats by manufacturers and government watchdogs leave the public at risk. As with so many previous automotive defects, that safety void will exist until manufacturers are spurred to find the real solution. And, as in the past, that void will be filled by product liability litigation, and the type of knowledge and techniques that effective lawyers can use for the good of consumers across the nation.

Raymond Paul Johnson is a Los Angeles product safety attorney who holds a masters degree in engineering, and has been prosecuting defective acceleration cases since the 1980s. He is co-author of the national treatise “Defective Product: Evidence to Verdict,” a long-time member of Consumer Attorneys of California, and a Governor-Emeritus of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles.
Cory G. Lee is an attorney with Raymond Paul Johnson, A Law Corporation. He is a member of Consumer Attorneys of California and the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles, and practices in the areas of products liability, hazardous roads, business law and other civil litigation matters. He and Raymond Paul Johnson are representing the Ezals against Toyota.

  • Two automakers agree to settle unintended acceleration cases
  • Government report not necessarily the last word in Toyota case
  • Toyota, regulators continue to look into possible gas pedal defects
  • Toyota’s sudden unintended acceleration: By the numbers
  • Safety research group files suit over Toyota acceleration records