Hysteria Trumps Reason in Prius Acceleration Story

This week’s story of a San Diego man and his runaway Prius marks the turning point on when Toyota’s unintended acceleration issues crossed over into hysteria. While observers cast doubt on the truthfulness of the high-profile incident, more drivers have reported cases of Prius sudden acceleration. With each new report, there is a growing counter-movement that points to human psychology—rather than technical malfunctions—as an explanation.

On Tuesday, a New York woman said her 2005 “shot” forward into a stone wall. A day later, a Minnesota doctor and his wife complained that their 2007 Prius suddenly took off—in reverse. On Wednesday, a 76-year-old Connecticut woman reported that her 2007 Toyota (model unidentified) took off across the lawn of her church and crashed into the church steps. “It’s a miracle,” said Father Rev. James Bogiatzis, when he surveyed the damage and yet nobody was hurt.

Satan Behind the Wheel?

Stuck Gas Pedal

Toyota originally blamed floor mats for stuck acceleration pedals. Although some Prius owners doubted the explanation, the company issued a voluntary recall to correct for “floor mat entrapment.”

How do you explain the sudden spike in incidents? Lars Perner, professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, told Associated Press, “When people expect problems, they’re more likely to find them.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that increases in complaints to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) by car owners are common after automakers announce plans for recalls. In just the first 10 weeks of this year, 272 complaints have been filed nationwide for speed control problems with the Prius, according to an Associated Press analysis of unverified complaints received by the NHTSA. Only 74 complaints were filed last year, and eight in 2008. There’s been a similar jump in reports of problems with Prius brakes: 1,816 this year, versus 90 in 2009 and fewer than 20 every other year of the last decade.

In the title of Mark Vaughn’s editorial in AutoWeek, a trade publication, he wonders, “Is Satan Controlling Your Car?” He casts blame partly on drivers and partly on the media for stirring up hysteria. Vaughn writes that there are about 600 recalls a year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and that federal agencies have recalled nearly 400 million vehicles during its history. “Yet these things only occasionally get any ink,” Vaughn writes.

Regarding drivers, he asks, “If you crashed your car, wouldn’t you rather blame it on a mysterious, satanic sticking gas pedal than on your own dumbass driving? Laying the blame on a manufacturer cover-up is too easy.” But his harshest criticism is levied against the media. “In the perfect storm of Pulitzer Prize-seeking media, slow news days and an engine computer that might be controlled by Satan, Toyota is taking a huge smack in the reputation.” Vaughn urges that highway safety investigations be done on a more scientific and less hysterical basis.

Ghosts in Machine, or Inside Us

NHTSA is apparently doing just that. Unfortunately, that leaves David Strickland, chief of the NHTSA, searching for gremlins and ghosts in the machine. Despite the increased media coverage, Strickland told the Washington Post that the rate of complaints against Toyota, when compared with other automakers, was “unremarkable.” He said that until someone pinpoints one of the sometimes elusive causes, there is little the agency can do legally. “We have to find the vehicle defect that creates an unreasonable risk to safety,” he told a Senate panel last week. “If we cannot find that defect, we cannot go forward.”


In an editorial in today’s New York Times, Richard Schmidt, professor emeritus of psychology at the UCLA, looks back at his investigation of 150 cases of unintended acceleration in the 1980s. He writes, “When engineers examined these vehicles post-crash, they found nothing that could account for what the drivers had reported.” He adds, “Back then, many of us who worked in fields like ergonomics, human performance and psychology suspected that these unintended-acceleration events might have a human component.”

Schmidt doesn’t believe that a technical fix—like some kind of “smart pedal” override proposed by the Obama Administration—will necessarily stop these incidents. (Toyota Priuses and other vehicles are already designed to come to a stop when both the brakes and accelerator are pressed.) He concludes, “If the reports of acceleration continue (and the smart pedals work properly), then there will be nothing and no one left to blame but the driver.”

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  • Shines

    2 years ago an SUV accelerated suddenly and flew across my front lawn; hit the rear of my car parked in my driveway turning it 90 degrees and leaving it hanging over the edge of my driveway. The SUV continued on and flew over the edge of my driveway (which is a couple of feet higher than my neighbors driveway) and broadsided my neighbor’s minivan in mid air which pushed it into my neighbor’s other car parked on the other side of the minivan. What caused the unintended acceleration of the SUV? The vehicle slipped on a bunch of leaves in the street just down from my house and the driver slammed on the accelerator pedal instead of the brake pedal. Her foot came off it only after the SUV hit my neighbors minivan. No, the SUV wasn’t a Toyota…

  • AP

    The reason NHTSA begins investigations on unintended acceleration skeptically is the history of people doing this and lying about it.

  • DownUnder

    When an accident occurs, drviers always try to blame something else, not themselves. I feel for Toyota and wish them all the best.

  • Larson

    Not that it matters to most of you on this site, but the Doctor from Minnesota’s Prius incident was actually back in December of 2009…before the recall. So I would say his has nothing to do with “Hysteria”. There are lots of cases of this…in prius’s non the less, before the Recall.

    Here is a little bit for you to read or watch…whichever you choose, from Joan Claybrooks testimony from the hearing today.

    Maybe she has fallen pray to the “hystaria” as well…Who knows?

    Joan Claybrook –

    “I think it is interesting that Toyota has said that it is a floor mat recall of 5 million cars and yet the remedy that they are putting in most of those cars is not only to remove or fix the pedal or floor mat but to put put in a brake override program which is an electronic fix….Why are they putting an electronic fix in if it is the floor mat or if its the pedal?” “I think it is a software problem and if the vehicles have been fixed with the floor mat or pedals and they still run away, then there is obviously another problem”
    “and I also think there are vehicles not covered by the recall that may have these problems but they may use a different sofware so it is not an identical problem”

    “But their is no question in my mind that this is an electronics issue”

    ” and I think the company took the position early on that it wasn’t because it would hurt there sales with consumers and consumers don’t like software glitches.”

    “Now if they changed there mind they would be subject to 18uc1000…lying to the government and going to jail!”

    “I think they (Toyota) are looking at this as a communication fix as opposed to a real fix”


  • HH Owner

    What we need from Toyota is a more open Kimono approach. They should pubish their computer control software source code and designs of the electronic components. They should allow the software and electronic engineering community a chance to verify whether or not there could be a problem with their elecontronic controls. This could be put to rest in a matter of days if they took this step.

    As for the electronic “fix” to shut down the acceleator when the brake is pressed, I recall a preivous incident regarding Audi 5000’s that is all too similar – unintended acceleration when shifting into Drive that was initially blamed on floor mats and driver error. The fix for those cars and every automatic transmission car produced since the 1990’s is a lockout that prevents you from shifting out of park without first depressing the brake pedal.

    A Toyota hybrid owner

  • AP

    HH Owner, from what I remember, there was nothing wrong with the Audi’s. In the main case, after a woman had run over her son, she told neighbors she accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Afterward, she changed her story, and the Audi myth was born.

    CBS rigged a test on the air to “prove” the problem existed, and should have been sued out of existence for libel.

    The interlock to keep the car in Park unless the brake is depressed was legislated afterward, but fixed a problem that never existed.

    More legislation will probably result this time too, problem or not.

  • larson

    I totally agree about releasing the information. Doesn’t it seem odd that they won’t?

    Here is a good article saying pretty much what you said:

    A Modest Proposal for Toyota: Release the Code!


  • Anonymous

    more media sensationalism and propaganda…

    Releasing the code? This coming from USA who have been preaching to china on intellectual property protection? Try that line with microsoft, lol

  • Mr. Fusion

    At HH Owner and larson:

    The Prius is not an iPhone in need of a new Stop-N’Go app.

    Toyota, nor any other company involved with software, will not release their source codes to help them resolve any possible glitches. Much like you would not release your personal finance information to help solve your debt problems.

    That San Diego Prius should be publicly examined and tested to see if the control failure can be repeated. As should other claims of this nature.
    On the other hand, severe penalties should be created for false claims.

  • larson

    Mr. Fusion – “Toyota, nor any other company involved with software, will not release their source codes to help them resolve any possible glitches.”

    That must be why all the other car manufacturers release theirs? Again read the article I posted above.

    Toyota…whether it comes out today, tomorrow or a month from now Toyota has dooped the American people and will pay for it.

  • Scott Thomas

    Toyota and others knew they were having issues and attempted to hide it. All Car Companies should have came forward with a full disclosures of what car were dangerous. Instead of waiting for a huge media blitz and tons of public pressure. I never seen so many car companies GM – NISSAN – TOYOTA – HYUNDAI having recalls all at the same time. I had no idea my car was affected until I looked on http://www.carpedalrecall.com and found I had a bad Anti Lock control unit on my 2008 Pontiac G8 , my co workers Ford Truck had a recall also. So be careful

  • sheckyvegas


  • Mr. Fusion


    What other companies are releasing is the Event Data Recorder (black box) information, not the computer control software.

    I agree with the article, the EDR data should be made more accessible by Toyota, especially in this situation.

  • Realist

    Dude, when Billionaires start reporting that their Prius’s have incidents of “Uncontrolled, Scary Acceleration”, you might want to start believing this problem is real.

    When the Billionaire in question is ALSO an electronics genius, and worth 5 Billion dollars. You *really* need to believe this problem is real.

    Steve Wozniak has reported the problem in his Prius. Check it out:

  • Anonymous

    dude, the billionaire himself said he was mis-quoted. get a grip.


  • Jimmy D.

    In listening to the reports Toyota claims he switched from accelerator to break more than 255 times. That’s because the memory in the chip runs out after that. However, does that make human sense? Software can get into loops and this condition looks more like a software bug where the software actually causes the switches to the accelerator back and forth and back and forth while you are standing on the brake. Someone needs to ask the question, do the readings actually make sense in relation to a human beings action and timing? Once the loop is broken the condition often cannot be recreated, because values are reset. In debugging software the number of variables and exact values which drive a system into a loop are very difficult to determine. So I think people need to review what information the system does provide and then examine that information in relation to a human beings capabilities. FYI – if timings are associated with these actions humans are inconsistent and slow down after time, machines remain more consistent with their timing intervals.

  • Anonymous

    jimmy d.

    your theory should be easy to prove/dis-prove. since the black box records pedal positions. if the car was stuck in a loop, the positions would probably be very consistent and repetitive. if one were to plot a graph, it’s probably nearly identical between cycles.

    however, if a human was trying to fake a runaway incident, it is likely the positions would be less uniform.

    in terms of data making sense, keep in mind actions of an irrational person also will never make sense.

  • tapra1

    Toyota (model unidentified) took off across the lawn of her church and crashed into the church steps. “It’s a miracle,” said Father Rev. James Bogiatzis, when he surveyed the damage and yet nobody was hurt.Premium Freebies