Electronic Design
What’s All This Unintended Acceleration Stuff, Anyhow?

What’s All This Unintended Acceleration Stuff, Anyhow?

I remember when Audi cars were accused of unintended acceleration (U/A) several years ago. The experts forced Audi to lock out the shift lever if drivers didn’t have their foot on the brakes. Drivers had to know where the brake pedal was before the car would let them shift into Drive. (Hey, I must say, that’s not a bad idea.) Well, the cases of U/A decreased a lot. But I don’t think they went to zero.

Now it’s happening again. Some Toyotas are accused of U/A. Unlike older cars with mechanical linkages, most new cars have their throttle controlled by an electrical signal on a wire. If the (digital) computer decides to do something stupid, it may be hard to defeat it. But, sometimes, a black box can detect what went wrong. The jury is still out on that. The IEEE has been working on a new standard for black boxes for car systems. That’s a good direction to work.

In my book* on pages 53-54, I explain quite clearly what to do in case of U/A. The first thing is to tap or jiggle the gas pedal, then hit the brakes hard, and if that’s not working well, turn off the key! But don’t turn it very far. Just far enough to turn off the ignition. If you turn it too far, you wouldn't be able to turn the steering wheel, which is a bad thing. So that's why you should do it in an empty parking lot. And make sure you practice doing this, so you know what your car feels like when you turn off the key.

The steering may get heavy, and the brakes may not work so well until you tromp on them hard. But they will work, and you should make sure you know what will happen when you turn off the ignition. Practice in an empty parking lot. If you don't like the way that feels, then shift into neutral and let the engine scream, which I prefer not to do. You can turn off the key when you get stopped. 

People driving automatic transmissions may experience the loss of power steering and power brakes, but those of us with a manual transmission may not lose power steering or brakes. It just goes to show the advantages of a manual transmission. Some ultra-modern cars may not even have a proper ignition key. So if you need a long computer shutdown sequence to turn off the "engine(s)," then you probably ought to beat up your dealer and get written instructions on what to do in case of U/A. He wouldn't dare not give it to you. 

My friend Les Sipkema said that these instructions should be in the owner’s manual. I replied that nobody reads the driver’s manual these days, except me and him and maybe eight other people in the U.S. So, I volunteered to write this to remind everybody that you have to know what to do in case of an engine that goes wild.

According to the book Sudden Acceleration by J. Cashelli, et al, it’s not just old Audis or new Toyotas that go berserk. Many other cars do, or did: Fords and GMCs, and almost every other car. The car companies were pretty good at covering up such cases. They don’t need a lot of publicity.

For many years, the car companies just blamed it on “driver error,” as if the dumb driver hit the gas by mistake. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration let the car companies get away with it. But the actual rate for a surprised driver to hit the gas, in error, is down below 1%.

Finally, many car makers redesigned their cruise control modules and some of their engine controls, and the rate of U/A gradually decreased. After all, why in 1984 did Ford apply for U.S. Patent 4,472,777, a cruise control that was designed to avoid unwanted or unexpected vehicle acceleration?

Similarly, on pages 23-25 of my book, I provide comprehensive instructions for what to do in case your brakes fade or fail. These procedures are similar. You might downshift, or turn off the key, and use the handbrake. Scrub your fenders against a guardrail—or even some rocks. It depends on if you are on a steep downhill or whatever.

Anyhow, a lot of you readers, as thoughtful engineers, already know how to do this. But does your spouse? Or your kid? They should know this.

Terrible Case History
There was a guy driving a Camry in Minneapolis. His engine surged in U/A, and he didn’t know these procedures to slow down the car or scrub off the speed against a guardrail. The car shot up an exit ramp and whacked into the tail of a car there. Three people were killed.

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Apparently his “defense attorney” was foolish and lazy and didn’t defend him properly. The guy was sentenced to eight years on the basis of bad evidence and no defense. The defense tried to introduce evidence that the brake-light filaments had burned out, but this was considered inconclsuive. One air bag had inflated, but the other didn’t—again, inconclusive, but not presented to judge nor jury.

The insurance company said the crash damage was consistent with a speed “over 30 mph,” but the defense attorney kept saying his client was doing 85 mph! Fortunately, my friend Les was able to get him some proper defense, and the district attorney let the guy out. Anyhow, if you’re ever involved in a case of U/A, now you know what to do. Dive for the key! Don’t just hold on tight and hope that the car slows down.

Road hogs on hills
Recently, we were reminded of hogs who go up a hill—or down a hill—on two-lane roads, very slowly and cautiously. They’re often drivers of RVs. There’s no safe way to pass them. And, these inconsiderate bastards fail to pull over and let people pass them, even if there is a wide place or turn-out for exactly that.

In California, we have had a law in effect for more than 40 years, Vehicle Code Para. 21656, “Turning out of slow-moving vehicles.” If you have a tail of five or more cars behind you, you are required to pull over and let them pass, even if you are doing the speed limit! If you are so inconsiderate as to get ticketed for this, I will stand there and cheer on the cop!

* How To Drive Into ACCIDENTS—And How NOT To, R. A. Pease, 1998; 488 pages; $21.95; send check to Robert A. Pease, 682 Miramar Avenue, San Francisco, Calif. 94112.

Comments invited! Beast rgrds. [email protected] —or:
R.A. Pease, 682 Miramar Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94112-1232

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