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UnIntended Acceleration Anniversary (Kinda long)
Fellow Audians; I wanted to post this last week (more towards the
middle of the month) but Spokane got hit with an amazing ice storm. We
lost power last Tuesday and just got it back this afternoon. Anyway...
ten years ago this month (Nov) the king's of yellow journalism @60min
ran their Unintended Acceleration piece. Since then, I've watched
60min exactly once (my best friend's wife was on) and barring any
other similar personal events, I will never watch it again. In light
of the tenth anniversary, I offer a "reprint" of Mr. Peter Huber's
excellent article that appeared in the The Wall Street Journal on
Monday, December 18, 1989.
MANUFACTURING THE AUDI SCARE
By Peter W. Huber
If you're the kind of driver who sometimes has trouble finding
the brakes in your car, you should be driving and Audi. Last month, in
35 mph crash tests of an air-bag equipped Audi 100, the mannequin in
the driver's seat suffered the lowest crash force ever recorded by the
National Highway and Safety Administration, NHTSA, in this kind of
And yet, according to the Center for Auto Safety—a self-styled
public interest organization that sells its research to plaintiffs'
lawyers—the Audi 110's predecessor, the Audi 5000, was as deadly as
the Audi 100 is safe. It exhibits "sudden acceleration," a fatal
propensity to take off at full speed even as the terrified driver
rammed the brake pedal to the floor.
CBS's "60 Minutes" ran a devastating expose of the Audi 5000.
Audi customers fled. Lawyers cashed in. The American public was saved,
yet again, from the perils of technology gone awry. Only one little
footnote remains at the end. There was nothing wrong with the car.
The Audi story is, by now, dismally familiar. "Sudden
acceleration" accidents occurred when the transmission was always
shifted out of "park." The driver always insisted he was standing on
the brake, but after the crash the brakes always worked perfectly. A
disproportionate number of accidents involved drivers new to the
vehicle. When an idiot-proof shift was installed so that a driver
could not shift out of park if his foot was on the accelerator,
reports of sudden acceleration plummeted.
But a story to the effect that cars accelerated when drivers
step on the accelerator doesn't boost television ratings or jury
verdicts. And driver error is understandably hard to accept for a
mother whose errant foot killer her six-year old son. So with the help
of such mothers, CAS and CBS knitted together a tissue of conjecture,
insinuation, and calumny. The car's cruise control was at fault. Or
maybe the electronic idle. Or perhaps the transmission.
"60 Minutes" in one of journalism's most shameful hours, gave
air time in November 1986 to a self-styled expert who drilled a hole
in an Audi transmission and pumped in air at high pressure. Viewers
didn't see the drill of the pump—just the doctored car blasting off
like a rocket.
Junk science of this kind moves fast. Real science takes time
to catch up with this kind of intellectual cockroach and squash it.
Government agencies in Japan and Canada, as well as the U.S.,
conducted pain-staking studies. The Canadians, who are franker about
such things called it "driver error." In America, were we cannot
attach blame to any whose name does not end with Inc., it was called
"pedal misapplication." And surprisingly, it's not just Audi drivers
who commit it.
So, in the long run, the truth does come out. In the short
run, the lawyers swoop in. Most soon recognized that they couldn't
prove any defect in the Audi's engine or transmission. But our
liability system is a master of bait and switch—the switch was to
No doubt about it, the original Audi, like other European
cars, placed the brake and accelerator pedals slightly closer together
than is usual in many American designs. This allows a good driver to
move faster between the pedals in a high-speed emergency. Perhaps it
also makes it easier for a bad driver to mix up the pedals. Nobody,
including the NHTSA, is quite sure whether, overall, the old Audi
pedal placement was marginally better or marginally worse. End of
case, Hardly. With Audi shell-shocked and vulnerable from the earlier
junk-engineering claims, the pedal placement lawyers moved in.
The "60 Minutes" story starred a mother who had run over her
six-year old son. On air, she insisted that she had her foot on the
brake the whole time. When $48 million claim came to court in Akron,
Ohio in June 1988 the investigating police officer and witnesses at
the scene testified that after the accident the distraught mother had
admitted that her foot had slipped off the brake. The jury found no
defect in the car.
Trial judges in New Jersey and New York have overturned
bad-pedal-design verdicts against Audi. Last July, a federal court in
Pennsylvania issued a summary judgment for Audi. And that should have
been the end of Audi's legal troubles.
Except that it wasn't. An appellate court reinstated the New
Jersey verdict; an appeal is pending. The New York case was settled
before retrial. A California jury returned a $3.5 million verdict
against Audi on a pedal-placement theory, after the plaintiff's
lawyers abandoned a sudden-acceleration claim. Today, Audi is
reportedly defending itself in more than 140 different suits, and
damage claims are in excess of $5 billion. Note that the aggregate
claims have the slightest connection with reality, of course. At one
point a single demented plaintiff in New York files identical $5
billion claims in both federal and state courts; both have since been
How about the U.S. government safety report? In July, 1989,
shortly after the report was released, Audi ran a hopeful
advertisement titled "Case Closed." "The case is not closed responded
Robert Lisco, a Chicago plaintiffs' attorney. "Those guys most be
smoking something." "60 Minutes" never even acknowledged the final
U.S. findings: it did grudgingly note identical conclusions of an
earlier, blue ribbon study, and then proceeded to re-broadcast
inflammatory videos from the earlier segment. CAS denounced the
government study and cheerfully cranked up yet another sudden
acceleration smear, this one against Cadillacs. Layers for the "Audi
Victims Network" brazenly declared that the report strengthened their
They may be right. The largest suit now pending against Audi
is an Illinois class action, ostensibly representing 300,000 or so
Audi 5000 owners. The charge? That because of the sudden acceleration
controversy, Audis have lost their resale value.
Yes sudden acceleration is real. A powerful engine kicks into
gear without warning or reason. It crashes through a respected
business, ruins the livelihood of hundreds of innocent dealers, and
devalues the property of hundreds of thousand of bewildered car
owners. The windfall goes to those who destroy and then successfully
blame others for the wreckage. For heaven's sake, where are the
Mr. Huber, a columnist at Forbes magazine, is the author of
"Liability: The Legal Revolution and its Consequences, (Basic Books,
For more information on IU you may want to read the following
articles: DRIVER ERROR, Car & Driver, July 1989, pgs. 71-78; PUTTING
THE BRAKES ON UNINTENDED ACCELERATION, Automobile Magazine, July 1989,
pgs. 74-79, THE RIDDLE OF UNINTENDED ACCELERATION, Road & Track,
February 1988, pgs. 53-59. You may also be interested in the NHTSA'
report #DOT-HS-807-367, write to: National Technical Information
Service, Springfield, Virginia 22161.
LONG LIVE AUDI! F**K 60min X 10! Thanks, I feel better now! Greg.