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?
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.”