[Note: This piece first ran in May 2007. It seems particularly relevant again in light of the current Toyota unintended acceleration (UA) situation. But please note that the circumstance that caused the Audi UA may, or may not be very different, depending on the circumstances. In the early eighties, electronic gas pedals and complex engine controls and other interfaces such as with ABS/brakes were still on the horizon. Nevertheless, the rules of physics have not been repealed. And an unknown percentage of Toyota UA events undoubtedly are the result of pedal misapplication. Audi's near collapse in the American market after this incident remains a painful lesson in the power of the media, the slowness of the NHTSA, and the critical PR choices manufacturers make in the wake of a crisis like this. PN]
When I first heard about the Audi “sudden unintended acceleration” segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1986, I knew instantly that they were blowing smoke. Literally.
Some years earlier, I was part of a TV crew shooting an educational program. Legendary race-car driver Parnelli Jones was the guest celebrity one day. The producer offered to take us to lunch in his 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Three or four of us hopped into the giant back seat. Parnelli took the wheel, and the Caddy owner/producer rode shotgun.
Parnelli fired up the Caddy’s giant V8, dropped it in gear and floored it – with his left foot on the brake. One of the rear wheels lit up in a screeching howl, and the car was soon engulfed in a cloud of acrid smoke. The Caddy didn’t move an inch; obviously. And neither did Parnelli, glancing at the wincing producer with his wicked grin. he probably burned off half the rubber of that tortured tire before he stopped grinning and gunning. I had assumed (wrongly) that race-car drivers grew up eventually.
The experience seared in a lesson in basic automobile physics: brakes are always more powerful than engines, even when they have 500 cubic inches (8.2 liters). Too bad we didn’t have our cameras running; we could have made a graphic rebuttal to 60 Minutes’ fraudulent destruction of Audi.
Let’s set the scene: it’s 1984, and Audi sales had shot up 48 percent on the strength of their new aerodynamic 5000, the latest hot weapon in the perpetually-escalating suburban driveway status war. It was a stunning slick piece, and Audi was on a roll.
Suddenly, the war turned bloody. Moms in runaway Audi 5000’s were mowing down their little kids in the driveway and pinning granny against the far garage wall with the four-ringed front of the Audi.
This had never happened with the Olds Cutlass Supreme Brougham Coupe, the previous “hot” suburban car Mom traded in for her Audi. The German car certainly felt different. Unlike the Olds’ wide push-bar brake pedal – that some Americans still operated with their left feet – the Audi had that weird, small brake pedal, set kinda’ close to the gas pedal.
And these Audis had a mind of their own. No matter how hard Mom pushed on the brake pedal, the Audi kept on charging, right through the garage door with granny on the prow. This despite the fact that the little five-cylinder mill only cranked out 130 horsepower. And the top-notch four-wheel disc brake system probably could generate well over 600 equivalent horsepower.
Apparently, the brakes were failing at exactly the same moment that the gas pedal decided it had a mind of its own. Perfectly plausible, at least to the 60 Minutes crew, the Audi (non)drivers, and much of the media and public.
About as plausible as ignoring the police report of the most dramatic victim on the show, Kristi Bradosky, who ran over her six year old son. That report said “Bradosky’s foot slipped off the brake pedal onto the gas pedal accelerating the auto.” Denial isn’t just a river.
Ed Bradley’s 17 minute “investigative report” aired on November 23, 1986. Between interviews of the teary-eyed “victims” (drivers) of unintended acceleration swearing their feet were on the brake pedal, CBS showed a clip of a driverless Audi lurching forward on its own.
Viewers didn’t get to see the canister of compressed air on the passenger-side floor with a hose running to a hole drilled in the transmission. An “expert” had rigged the Rube Goldberg device to shift the big Audi into drive and, like any automatic-equipped car, move forward (unless the brakes are depressed).
The clip was blatantly deceptive AND totally irrelevant. Nobody claimed driverless Audis were taking off and killing kids and grannies. Mom was always at the wheel, pushing the 5000’s “brake” pedal with all her might.
In 1989, after three years of studying the blatantly obvious, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued their report on Audi’s “sudden unintended acceleration problem.” NHTA’s findings fully exonerated Audi and some other implicated foreign makes”.
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. 60 Minutes did not retract their piece; they called the NHTSA report “an opinion.”
(Update: Audi and many manufacturers quickly added an automatic transmission interlock, making it impossible to shift into drive or reverse without a foot on the (real) brake.)
A flood of lawsuits was already washing over Audi, not to mention a tsunami of bad publicity. Audi took a questionable stance: they didn’t blame the drivers for the problem, even after the NHTSA report came out. Hey, the customer’s always right, and we sure wouldn’t want to make our American customers look stupid. Anything but that.
So the German automaker took it on the chin. Audi sales collapsed, from 74k units in 1984 to 12k by 1991. The timing added insult to injury; sales fell exactly during the same years when Lexus arrived to battle for the hearts and wallets of America’s up-scale consumers. Lexus quickly became the latest suburban driveway prestige symbol.
As a final kick to the near-corpse, Audi’s suddenly wanna-be-Lexus drivers launched a class action suit charging lost resale value. No wonder the brand almost abandoned the U.S. in 1993. It’s a killer market.