The Best Of TTAC: The Audi 5000 Intended Unintended Acceleration Debacle

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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the best of ttac the audi 5000 intended unintended acceleration debacle

[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 Nevertheless, the rules of physics have not been repealed.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.

Paul Niedermeyer
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  • Grant404 Grant404 on Aug 05, 2015

    When the 60 Minutes UA controversy came out, I was a certified traffic crash investigator (now retired). From that story and the many other reports I heard and read, it was obvious to me that what was being described as having supposedly happened to UA "victims" in reality could not have happened that way. When it came out that 60 Minutes had rigged the tests, I was not surprised. It was not the first time 60 Minutes had been caught presenting misleading or incorrect information as fact (I never watched 60 Minutes again after the Audi debacle). In June 1987, Car and Driver published a lengthy story on their investigation and analysis into the subject of supposed UA involving the Audi 5000, and concluded it was caused by driver error (pedal misapplication) and that the 60 Minutes story had been fraudulent nonsense. I was so convinced the Audi's supposed UA issues had been caused by driver error I decided to take advantage of frightened sheeple running away from a perfectly good brand. In the summer of '87 I bought a beautiful, pristine, year-old '86 5000CS Turbo for half its new price from an owner who had no problems with it, but had been scared into selling it by the mainstream media hype. (Btw, the NA version was for people who preferred economy over performance, the CST and CST-Q were the sportier versions). Out of the 40-ish vehicles I have owned over the years, that Audi is still one of my favorites. The only issues it had in the four years I owned it were a transmission problem and a couple of inop window switches, all covered under warranty. It was a beautiful car and yes, just like my Jaguar and Cadillac, expensive to service once out of warranty. In my experience, it had no more quality issues than the many other vehicles I owned in that era of less-than-stellar quality control, and fewer issues than some. On the contrary, I was always impressed by the engineering and thoughtful touches that went into the design. In the '80s it was considered far ahead of its time. As for the perception of the Audi brand and specifically the 5000 in those years, it was most certainly already perceived as a premium marque in the US in the late '80s. I had many examples of amusing remarks people made about it in public in that regard. For example, on one occasion I went to a convenience store for something and I happened to park in front of the glass doors. I went in and bought whatever I was there to get, but as the cashier was ringing up my order, I realized I had my checkbook with me (remember the pre-debit card days when people wrote checks at stores?) but not my driver's license or any ID. When I told the cashier I had no ID, she said "That's ok, you drive an Audi, I'm sure your check is good." I thought she was kidding at first and I chuckled, then I realized she was serious, so I shrugged and wrote the check (it was good, btw). Aside from the logical problems with her reasoning (I might have spent all my money on the car, it might not have even been my car, etc. etc.) it showed how the Audi brand (and that car in particular) was perceived in the US. Even in car-jaded SoCal on a summer of '88 trip across the US to CA my family and I took in the Audi, people would compliment or ask about it at gas stations or other public places. During our contract renewal negotiation time at work, my coworkers half-jokingly asked me not to drive that car to work until after our contract was finalized, the idea being that people would see it in the employee lot and think we already made too much money. Never mind that in reality I had paid less for it than some my coworkers had paid for their SUVs, Audi had the perception of being an expensive, premium brand. I also remember a puff piece done by one of the national "PM Magazine"-type pop culture TV shows circa 1987 about the perceived premium status of the "big three" German brands, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. To the tune of "Big Time" by Peter Gabriel, they showcased together a Merc, a Bimmer, and a bright red Audi 5000CST that was a virtual twin to my '86. Yes, I understand that in Germany or Europe as a whole, those three brands weren't necessarily seen in the same premium brand status symbol light as in the US, and that even Mercedes is/was kind of like GM in the US, they made everything from taxicabs up to trucks. However, that's the way those brands positioned and presented themselves in the US market, and that's the way they were generally perceived. Audi was very careful to cultivate the premium image, for example, wisely making sure their dealers were physically paired up with Porsche and not VW.

  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Jan 09, 2016

    What I recall of the 60 Minutes Audi 5000 show is that they had two different reports. I saw one of them at the request of someone that I knew that was looking to buy a new car. The main argument of the 'victims' was that it must have been a fault in the car, never found, because the drivers had Master's degrees. The kicker was the guy who claimed to have found a fault in the transmission that would cause the engine to go to full throttle without any input from the driver. They had a 5000 with the driver's door removed so the pedals would be on camera. The 60 Minutes guy, Ed Bradley IIRC, stated that the car had been modified to simulate the fault. This might have involved the infamous compressed gas cylinder. Recall that vehicles of that era, before computer shifted transmissions and throttle by wire, had a physical connection between the engine throttle and the trans. Some had a cable. Some had a pushrod. Audis had pushrod. This was to get the trans to shift/kickdown at the right vehicle speed/engine RPM. So here we go, the driver LIFTED HIS FOOT OFF THE BRAKE PEDAL, the throttle pedal went to the floor without being touched and the car moved off sedately. As soon as the car moved off camera, after a few seconds, the scene cut. There was no tire smoking wheelspin or top-fuel acceleration. (No I won't get in the discussion of the 5000'sd power or lack thereof). After the show was over I asked the person I was with what they thought about the situation particularly the demonstration of the "Fault". She said "He took his foot off the brake". Pretty much end of story except she knew very little about cars other than how to drive them and that regular maintenance is important. BTW she ended up buying an Accord and was quite happy with it.

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