Memo From Michael: Unintended Acceleration

April 17, 2010

It's been almost two months since I wrote about Toyota...what we knew in February and what we didn't.

Now, it appears likely if not inarguable, that Toyota has some issues. Rusting is one of them...affecting the spare tire carrier of 870,000 Sienna minivans over a 13-year span and the spare tire and gas tanks of more than 110,000 model year 2000 to 2003 Toyota Tundra pickups.

Evidence is mounting that Toyota also isn't as transparent as it should be with its customers and regulators when it knows it has a problem,  as with their gas pedals and floor mats.

But what about the issue everyone is focused on...unintended acceleration?

Toyota is going back to Capitol Hill for testimony in early May. The committee wants all evidence relating to "electronic causes of unintended acceleration".

So far, that seems to us like asking Toyota to prove a negative. Let's review the cases that have made news and been properly investigated.

The panic began with last summer's crash which killed an off-duty California Highway Patrolman and his family near San Diego, California. He was in a loaner Lexus ES 350 when it accelerated suddenly for six minutes before crashing into a truck and going off a cliff, bursting into flames.  The CHP investigated and says the accelerator pedal was trapped under an oversized floormat meant for a different Lexus. That would be human error...someone at the dealership put in the wrong mat.

I'd also have to throw in driver error...a Highway Patrolman, trained to deal with emergencies, allows his car to uncontrollably accelerate on a public road for six minutes and doesn't shift to neutral?

Next up was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who said his Prius had an unintentional acceleration problem. But when he provided details, it turned out he had the cruise control on and was going over 80 (at that speed, there's not a lot left to accelerate, intentionally or otherwise). Steve hasn't been providing straight answers since Toyota looked at his car...and on CNN, he called it a "hoax":

Then we have the Southern Illinois University professor who showed ABC News' Brian Ross how he could induce unintended acceleration electronically in a Toyota:

But the Ross report had issues...including misleading editing (later fixed in the video above)...and Toyota, in a live webcast, demonstrated that not only was what the professor demonstrating impossible to replicate in normal driving (without re-wiring your car), they showed that using his technique, you could induce unintended acceleration in vehicles made by other manufacturers. And they did it, live, in front of reporters and to a global audience online.

But before that webcast could end, another alleged unintended acceleration incident was happening outside San Diego:

His name was Jim Sikes, and he spent 23 minutes on the line with a 9-1-1 operator saying his Prius was accelerating out of control on a San Diego County freeway. 81 miles per hour when he called, breathless (though he admits he had cars "passing me left and right").

The 9-1-1 operator told him to put the car in neutral. He didn't. Not until a police cruiser caught up with him and media choppers were in the air. Then he did and coasted safely to a stop.

He told TV reporters he was afraid the car would "flip over" if he put it in neutral. He told a magazine he was afraid it would "stop too suddenly". This from a former Corvette owner who wore his "Corvette Owners Club of San Diego" jacket on the day of the incident.

Toyota and NHTSA examined his car. While commentors on the internet screamed "hoax" and "fraud", Toyota was charitable, simply saying the "evidence does not fit Mr. Sikes' version of the events."

Sikes has been below the radar since.


But the day after Mr. Sikes' wild ride, a much more credible victim came on the scene...a 55-year old woman in Harrison, New York, who said her Prius took off on its own out of a driveway and hit a brick wall....despite desperate efforts to brake.

The damage was significant. The victim didn't seek media attention. The police chief said on the scene that this "was not driver error."

Except, it was. NHTSA announced that a review of the data recorders indicated the woman never touched the brake...and had the foot on the gas pedal, all the way to the floor, the entire time.


And finally, on March 29, the case of 76 year old Myrna Marseille, whose 2009 Toyota Camry rammed into the Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin YMCA when she was trying to park. She swore the car made this huge roar and leaped forward while she stood on the brake.

That's it...incident after highly publicized incident and the results are:

  • Human error (wrong floor mat installed)/Driver error (vehicle not shifted to neutral)
  • Admitted hoax to get attention for lesser issue
  • Staged event impossible to replicate without altering vehicle electronics
  • Suspected hoax
  • Driver error (standing on the wrong pedal)
  • Driver error (standing on the wrong pedal)
And driver error (standing on the wrong pedal) is the most common cause of properly investigated unintended acceleration incidents of the past 25 years.

Still, the government doesn't get it. NHTSA, The National Academy of Sciences and NASA (!) are going to spend 15 months and $3 million to investigate possible electronic causes of unintended acceleration.

Never mind that they can't name one.

How long are the odds of their ever finding one? Well,, the well-respected auto buying site, is confident enough that they're running a contest offering $1 million to the person who can solve the electronic cause of unintended acceleration. But first, they have to prove one exists.

For now, the record speaks for itself.

If your car begins to suddenly accelerate without your input, and only goes faster as you step on the brake, put the car in neutral, wait for it to cruise to a stop and then look down.

Odds are your foot will be on the gas pedal.

Thanks for reading. I hope you'll share the link with everyone you know. It's time to bring the panic to an intended stop.

Michael Hagerty