Monday, August 19, 2013

Unintended acceleration = driver error?

I've said this before on my blog, and I'll say it again. I don't believe there's any such thing as "unintended acceleration" in any car made today. Or last year. Or any year for that matter. As far as I can tell, it's "driver had foot mashed on accelerator". The US DoT has a more delicate name for it - 'pedal misapplication'. In November last year, a video showed up that claimed to be hard evidence of unintended acceleration as the video shows a driver ramming a house twice. But careful inspection of the video reveals some very telling evidence - the driver never once tried to use the brake - the brake lights never come on. This particular Toyota has a hard link from the pedal to the brakes - not drive-by-wire - so there's no "electrical gremlins" that can be blamed. Worse still (for the driver at least), Toyota pulled the data from the car's event data recorder (the black box) and showed that, as the video also shows, the brake pedal was never touched. The EDR did however show what I think we all know - the driver mashed their foot on the accelerator for both "events" and that was the cause of the crash shown in the video.
Frankly I was ambivalent about EDRs in cars until I read about this case, but now I think they might be a good idea. People are too happy nowadays to blame their own stupidity on something else, and "unintended acceleration" is the latest symptom of this. The drivers simply won't accept that it was their fault, and so blame all sorts of mysterious things like stuck accelerators, cars driving off on their own, brakes not working etc. So far, in all the cases Toyota have investigate, and all those cases the IIHS and DOT have investigated, I don't recall reading about a single one was caused by problems with the vehicle accelerator or braking systems.
The Noriko Uno case - currently still in the courts - is tragic for sure. She died when her Camry hit a telephone pole at 100 miles an hour. What's curious is that all the press stories tell of how the shifted into neutral, pulled on the emergency brake and did all manner of other things to try to stop before dying. Question : if she died, how do we know what she did? For the car to not slow down at all means either she did none of those things, or that simultaneously, the following items failed on her car : accelerator stuck full open even the her foot off the pedal. Ignition stuck on when the key was pulled out. Emergency brakes failed. Main brakes failed (both circuits). Transmission failed (wouldn't go into neutral when commanded). The likelihood of this happening is, to be honest, absolute zero. The likelihood that Ms Uno panicked with her foot hard down on the accelerator? 100% in my opinion. Sorry to be harsh, but think about it - human error or 6 simultaneous mechanical and electronic failures? Still not sure? Would it help to know that none of those 6 "failures" have ever been reported as single items on any other Camry?
This goes back a long way too - in the 80's, Audi came under fire for similar claims against them with the Audi 5000. Not only did those all turn out to be false, but the '60 Minutes' TV program aired a feature called "Out Of Control" where they claimed to show the Audi 5000 demonstrating unintended acceleration. As it turns out, it did, but only because the show had rigged the car with a compressed air canister hooked into the transmission that could be operated independent of the accelerator so they could make the car accelerate whenever they wanted, even with the driver's foot on the brake. (How 60 minutes rigged an Audi to 'prove' unintended acceleration.
The real issue here is that companies like Toyota get forced into class-action lawsuits that are based on fear rather than grounded in reality, and no matter how much it turns out to be driver error, once a company is forced to pay up for a case they lose, we all pay the price because the cost is inevitably passed on to the consumers. Remember the Toyota lawsuit was only to do with slipping floormats - nothing to do with the mechanical or electrical design of the vehicle systems, and the floormats were only an issue because drivers were putting extra mats on top. So realistically, not even a Toyota problem. But lawyers are lawyers and the sheeple like to be scared, so Toyota lost the case and now we all have to pay more for their cars.
The graph below - reproduced from Car and Driver - shows the problem. That huge spike was everyone jumping on the bandwagon claiming they too had unintended acceleration, trying to get money out of Toyota.
That in itself irks me - that people are so self-centred nowadays that they'll happily participate in a class action suit like this, because they receive something in the mail and think "Hell yeah! Free money!" But they don't once consider anyone else, or the greater good, and then simultaneously wonder why their next vehicle costs so damn much.
You can see the latest video and Toyota EDR analysis over at Autoblog : Toyota ramming house.