[Ed: With today's news of NHTSA's investigation results, we thought we'd look back at TTAC's coverage of the Toyota Unintended Acceleration scandal.]
The Toyota Unintended Acceleration Scandal of 2010 was a curious beastie of a media phenomenon. Shortly after I started writing for TTAC, NHTSA opened an investigation into Toyota Tacomas because, as the Center for Auto Safety’s Clarence Ditlow put it,
If there were truly human error, there would be a proportional distribution across models. It’s very difficult to explain how some makes and models have higher numbers of complaints than others absent some flaw in the vehicle.
Fresh as I was to writing about the world of cars, I was sure I had the story dead to rights. I had seen this movie before, when my father told me his epic Parnelli Jones Unintended Acceleration story. Dad had even killed the the family pickup’s engine at a traffic light to prove it… and I knew how bad the brakes in the old Ford were (but that’s another story). Absent a better explanation than mere statistical likelihood, I knew there was only one cause for this problem. With a level of confidence that seems totally at odds with subsequent events, I concluded by suggesting that
the Detroit Free Press and Motor Trend blog, are trying to resuscitate the [Audi 5000] media frenzy, only this time Toyota’s to blame for people mistaking the accelerator for their brake pedal… If a TTAC reader out there has a Tacoma, perhaps they would do us the honor of standing on the brakes while mashing the accelerator for a few seconds. This should prove fairly simply that “unintended acceleration” is possible only when you are not actually on the brakes.
It was that simple… wasn’t it?
What I hadn’t counted on back in early 2008, was that floormats and sticky pedals would emerge as possible causes of UA in Toyotas. Reports of runaway Toyotas continued to surface throughout 2008 and 2009, and nearly a year after taking on Ditlow’s statistics, TTAC logged its first story on possible “electronic” causes for UA in Toyotas. The now-defunct Autocoverup.com took up Ditlow’s statistical logic in April2009, and added the missing piece: a story that could not be logically explained.
On November 5, 2008, I was driving on a freeway in my 2008 Lexus ES350 with the cruise control on. I gave the car a little extra gas to pass another car and the car just took off. I tried to disengage the accelerator by trying to turn off the cruise control switch as well as tapping on the brake pedal, but it would not disengage. I tried to turn off the engine by pushing the keyless ignition button, but it would not turn off. I checked the floor to make sure that there wasn’t anything on the accelerator, and there wasn’t. I then put the car in neutral, but when I did this, the engine sounded as if it were going to explode, so I put it back in gear. By this time, I was going well over 100 mph. My only choice was to stand on the brakes. Within seconds, the car was in a cloud of smoke coming from the 4 wheels/brakes. The car began to slow as thankfully the brakes were stronger than the engine which was going at its maximum rpm’s. The car went over a mile before finally coming to a stop. I was then able to put the car in park and stop the engine. After a few moments, when I had calmed down a bit, I started the engine again and it immediately start racing at maximum rpm’s again, so I shut it off . . .
Before Toyota’s first floormat recall, the formula for the media firestorm that would erupt nearly a year later was already in place. First, statistics seemed to point to Toyota. Second, the power of narrative far surpassed the media’s mechanical knowledge. By the time Toyota finally blamed and recalled its floormats, it looked like the company was trying to blame a mundane floormat for a ghost in the machine.
With the powderkeg packed, the unintended acceleration scandal needed only a spark to ignite it. That spark was the fiery crash that killed an off-duty police officer and three family members near San Diego. Because the driver in that incident was a highway patrol officer, many refused to believe that he could have born any responsibility for the incident. Even after evidence surfaced that the car in the incident was a dealer loaner with incorrect floormats which, even with its pedal trapped, could be controlled, the Saylor crash remained proof positive for many that nobody, no matter how well trained, was safe from their Toyota if it decided to take off.
Weeks after the Saylor crash, Toyota recalled 3.8m floormats. Shortly after it announced it would be introducing brake override systems. Though, in retrospect, Toyota was probably scapegoating mats to keep from blaming customers, the story was already reaching a fever pitch. In the wake of the Saylor incident, even I began to hedge about the possibility of some kind of electronic problem causing UA. After all, cars were becoming increasingly electronics-dependent… weren’t we asking for some kind of inevitable techno-nightmare? Still, by the end of 2009, I thought the story had finally had its last hurrah. Of course I was wrong.
By the end of January, Toyota was recalling cars around the world, for sticky pedals made by its supplier, CTS. On February 1, the recall spread to the US. As TTAC explored the roots of Toyota’s decades-long trend towards decontenting, the first signs of saber-rattling from Washington were hitting the airwaves. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood may not have had the first idea about what was actually causing UA in Toyotas, but he definitely knew the political routine, and he laid into Toyota with gusto. Papers were leaked to the relevant congressional committees, and as tensions built in the leadup to congressional hearings, the story exploded in a riot of mass media confusion.
ABC News dumped fuel on the fire when notorious auto safety-baiter Brian Ross teamed up with Professor David Gilbert to produce a video suggesting that errors could be caused in Toyota’s engine control unit without registering error codes. Ross’s report was quickly criticized, and Toyota maintained that Gilbert’s test results had no bearing on real life. After all, the Southern Illinois professor had hard-wired ECUs to create his “ghost in the machine.” In the frenzy, everything from “tin whiskers” to cosmic rays were blamed for creating an untraceable, irreparable madness in Toyotas… eventhe nerd-god Steve Wozniak got in on the fun. TTAC’s own investigation, in which we stripped and analyzed both the recalled and replacement pedals was fascinating but inconclusive. By the time congressional hearings began on unintended acceleration in Toyotas, we were no closer to the truth than when the story started… if anything, the dizzying blur of media coverage made the certainty of early 2008 difficult to recreate.
Luckily, congress was on hand to bring back a sense of clarity to the issue. Not through the clear-eyed vision of our elected representatives though, but rather because of the very opposite. Both the House and Senate committee hearings were flailing disasters of mechanical misunderstanding, misleading testimony, grandstanding and general uselessness. Akio Toyoda was duly humiliated before the House Oversight Committee, before that august body settled into the defining moment of the entire scandal: a day-long hearing in which every hope for a secret hidden electronic gremlin was dashed upon the rocks of common sense. From the committee’s lying, lawyer-connected “expert witnesses“, to a failed attempt to skewer Toyota’s head of US operations, to its concluding meeting with Ray LaHood, April 24 brought every accusation against Toyota to the fore, and yet none managed to stick. By the end of the day’s “Comedy In Three Acts,” my belief that UA in Toyotas was primarily due to operator error was fully renewed. I concluded
Congress holds hearings like these to uncover shocking evidence and to impress its constituents with its dedication to their safety and well-being. Having been enticed into believing that sinister conspiracies exist in Toyota’s software code and the halls of the NHTSA, the House Energy Committee uncovered only one actionable solution to the ongoing scandal: greater funding for NHTSA’s investigative capabilities. Put differently, after hours of posturing congress finally met the enemy and he was them.
By the time Jim Sykes escalated the media hype a step further, when his Prius was caught being slowed by police cars on an interstate, the story was already over-ripe, and decaying from within. By the time the media learned that Sykes was hardly credible (never mind that his story was never credible), his 23-minute-long 911 call gave the story the reek of self-parody, and it collapsed on itself. Since then, we’ve received only regular updates from NHTSA with findings that point to driver error as the main cause of UA, capped by a report I summarized in a post titled Unintended Acceleration In Toyotas: The Ghost In The Data. Its conclusion:
This, in a nutshell, is what the whole Toyota unintended acceleration scandal is boiling down to: either pedal design or some other ergonomic issue makes UA more common, in which case the government can regulate it, or Americans are really becoming worse drivers and are always glad to have a convenient scapegoat for their ineptitude. As unsatisfying as these conclusions are, making peace with them is the only healthy choice at this point. Unless, of course, Government-run “behavioral training and adjustment” sounds like a practical solution to you.
With confirmation of this conclusion coming from today’s release of the long-awaited NASA investigation findings, it seems that the chimera of “Unintended Acceleration” may well be sealed up back in the American unconscious, where it should lay dormant for at least a few more years. After all, as a mass-market brand, Toyota’s lessons should be better remembered than were Audi’s from decades earlier. And yet, I still worry that the connections -and lessons- from the Toyota UA scandal could slip away just as they did after the Audi scandal. Ironically, I feel I captured the real lesson of the scandal best outside of TTAC, when I wrote in a Reuters op-ed:
Just as motorists can never assume that their vehicle will always function perfectly, consumers should avoid being lulled into a false sense of security by an automaker’s reputation alone. Automobiles are complex machines manufactured by firms that must constantly test the cost-quality equation to stay competitive in a cutthroat industry. As long as this is the case, the market for automobiles will remain dynamic and cyclical: an arena with little room for the kind of unquestioning trust that Toyota has enjoyed for so many years. If there’s a lesson to Toyota’s tumble, it’s that easy assumptions aren’t enough to keep you safe on the road, or in the showroom.
A year on from the height of the scandal, I think that if we bring anything away from the experience, it should be this.