When it comes to Toyota’s problems with sudden unintended acceleration, it is starting to look like 1986 all over again. It was in November of that year that the CBS show 60 Minutes aired its infamous report on a similar problem in Audi vehicles, featuring footage of the accelerator on an Audi 5000 moving toward the floor as if by magic. It wasn’t magic, though: CBS had engineered that touch of automotive Ouija-boardery through a can of compressed air and a hose drilled into the transmission.
Eventually it was determined that unintended acceleration was caused by “pedal misapplication,” a.k.a. drivers pressing the gas when they meant to push the brake. But not before the Audi brand was so thoroughly trashed that sales didn’t recover for a full decade and a half.
There is no question something is wrong with Toyota’s cars—the company has admitted as much, though it claims the problem is not electronic but mechanical, caused by ill-fitting floor mats in some models and sticky pedals in others. But figuring out how serious the problem of sudden unintended acceleration is, and how widespread it might be, has been hampered by the workings of the unholy trinity of consumer affairs scandals: sensationalist journalism, rank opportunism, and good old-fashioned human-powered idiocy.
Apparently working off some old 60 Minutes scripts he found in the garbage, Brian Ross of ABC news went for a test ride last month in a Toyota whose electronics had been—get this—deliberately modified to create sudden acceleration. Footage of the ride shows the car doing as expected, i.e., leaping ahead without warning. But Ross’s editors clearly didn’t think it was sufficient to send American Toyota owners into a panic, so they spliced into the scene a close-up shot of the car’s tachometer suddenly spiking to 6,000 rpm. Except the shot was obviously faked, since the dashboard indicators in the scene show that the car doors are open and the transmission is in park.
For sheer out-of-control terror though, it’s hard to beat the wild ride James Sikes’s Prius took him on last week. Sikes made headlines around the world with his story of hanging on for dear life as his car raced along a San Diego highway for 30 minutes, hitting speeds as high as 90 miles an hour. Despite (he claims) standing on the brakes, and at one point even trying to pry the accelerator off the floor with his hand, Sikes was only able to stop after a highway patrol officer talked him through an “emergency braking procedure.”
The story is almost certainly a hoax. It’s simply not possible, mechanically or electronically, for a Prius to keep accelerating when both the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time. Toyota has politely said it’s “mystified” by what happened, while U.S. federal investigators spent two days last week trying to replicate the acceleration, concluding (according to a leaked internal memo) that Sikes’s terror ride is “not feasible.” Various media outlets have reported that Sikes and his wife filed for bankruptcy protection a couple of years ago, but the couple says they have no desire to sue Toyota.
It isn’t clear yet what is really going on here. Perhaps it is the return of “driver error,” the same problem that haunted Audi in the 1980s. Back then, reports of sudden acceleration were highly correlated with being old, being short, or trying to park. The Los Angeles Times recently crunched the numbers on all National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports of Toyota “sudden acceleration” fatalities, and found that the overwhelming majority of drivers involved were over 55. Additionally, a sizable number of the cases happened when the driver was parking, in rush hour traffic, or accelerating from a light or stop sign.
Maybe, though, the problem is less about elderly, confused or distracted drivers than it is a sign of our own increasing alienation from the basic responsibility that goes along with getting behind the wheel of a car.
Once upon a time, safe driving was a skill. You needed a feel for the road and for the way the car’s suspension and handling was responding to changing conditions. You had to listen to the engine and the exhaust and be able to identify potential problems. And ultimately, you needed a modest amount of technical know-how about how the car actually worked, so that you could either make minor repairs on your own, or at least know enough to take it to someone who could.
Over the past few decades, cars have become more and more like very sophisticated appliances whose operation is beyond our comprehension. As a result, we’ve become passive and reactive drivers, insulated by technology from any sense of control or of responsibility for our own well-being. As that responsibility has shifted from the driver to the manufacturer, there has been a growing pressure to make cars not only safe and reliable, but completely idiot-proof.
As exhibit A, consider again Sikes’s case. He could have easily tamed his runway Prius by simply putting the thing in neutral, but he told police that he was afraid to do so because he thought the car might flip. But he’s not alone in being completely disconnected from the machine he was supposed to be controlling. As a writer for the automotive website Jalopnik pointed out in a recent article, Toyota actually had to release a guide for drivers, explaining how to remove a floor mat that had got stuck under the accelerator.
It isn’t our cars that are accelerating away from us, but our technology. In our increasing fear and befuddlement, we are manifestly failing to keep up.