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Braking Bad

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The Obama administration has said that it may require automakers to install “smart pedals” on all new cars. This kind of system—already used in BMWs, Chryslers, Volkswagens and some of the newest Toyotas—deactivates the car’s accelerator when the brake pedal is pressed so that the car can stop safely even if its throttle sticks open.

The idea is to prevent the kind of sudden acceleration that has recently led to the recall of millions of Toyotas. Federal safety regulators have received complaints asserting that this problem has caused accidents resulting in 52 deaths in Toyotas since 2000. Smart pedals might help prevent more such accidents if the cause of unintended acceleration turns out to be some vehicle defect.

But based on my experience in the 1980s helping investigate unintended acceleration in the Audi 5000, I suspect that smart pedals cannot solve the problem. The trouble, unbelievable as it may seem, is that sudden acceleration is very often caused by drivers who press the gas pedal when they intend to press the brake.

From the mid-1980s until 2000, thousands of incidents of sudden acceleration were reported in all makes and models of cars (and buses, tractors and golf carts). Then, as now, the incidents were relatively rare among car crashes generally, but they were nevertheless frequent and dangerous enough to upset automakers, drivers and the news media.

I looked into more than 150 cases of unintended acceleration in the 1980s, many of which became the subject of lawsuits against automakers. In those days, Audi, like Toyota today, received by far the most complaints. (I testified in court for Audi on many occasions. I have not worked for Toyota on unintended acceleration, though I did consult for the company seven years ago on another matter.)

From The New York Times
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