THE INSIDE MAN

The truth about Sudden Unintended Acceleration

The truth about Sudden Unintended Acceleration image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Brent Co | posted March 30, 2015 15:00

The law of unintended acceleration

Technology — like hired help — is one of the greatest creations ever, reducing time, labor, inconvenience and danger. That is if it does what we humans expect it to do. Because when it doesn't, everything goes to pot and could even pose a danger to life and limb. Existentially, it's all in keeping with the Creator's master plan, for even He foresaw that he would be pleased if obeyed, displeased if otherwise.

Same 'ol, same 'ol

We've heard all about vehicle recalls, consumer rights advocacies, legal remedies, warranty claims and the whole lot of the painful and yet necessary processes to claim on product liabilities in cases of defect or manufacturer negligence. Our imperfect world cannot avoid the other externalities — emotions, social media grandstanding, rash judgment, ranting frenzy and raging unthinking vitriol — that attach themselves to conflicts and potential conflicts that thrive and inflame these opportunities. Even with today's tougher consumer rights and product liability laws and pervasive social media, what matters at the core is the truth, regardless if emotionally distraught consumers see red, ambulance chasing lawyers see green and big business is stereotyped as greedy.

Less pedals, less mistake

SUA or sudden unintended acceleration has been a motor vehicle problem ever since the time a homo sapien had to be in charge of operating the controls of a car. The most common is the misapplication of the pedals i.e., wishing to stop, press brake, intending to go, press the gas pedal — get it wrong and you get unintended acceleration. Early cars actually had a lot more controls that can confuse — air-fuel mixture had its own hand lever at steering column height, there was an extra floor pedal to engage an idler gear to go into reverse, a pull lever for front brakes, another hand lever adjusted the timing for cold starts, then there was the pull knob for choke, etc., etc. The more control functions the driving chore required, the greater the possibility for confusion. That's why nothing could be more simpler than today's automatic-gearbox-two-pedal motoring. Having gotten rid of the clutch pedal of a manual gearbox, one only has to remember the brake and gas pedal functions. As ex-Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson always says "What could possibly go wrong?"

Three causes

Ironically, almost all recorded cases of SUA are vehicles fitted with automatic gearbox. SUA cases with manual gearboxes usually happen when the vehicle is already in motion, under cruise control and rarely from a standstill or a creeping crawl. Generally speaking, since 1980, SUA causes are classified into:

1. driver error - misapplication of pedals

2. mechanical malfunctions like sticking accelerator cables, stuck-up/binding linkages, foreign object [floor mat] interference

3. electrical malfunctions like current surge to cruise control relay modules or computer glitches.

The pedal's fault

For misapplied pedals, some cars have pedal locations that make it only too easy for drivers of smaller build to "miss" stepping on the intended pedal, i.e. gas instead of brake. One of the first recorded cases of SUA was the 1980's Audi 5000, which required a resizing and repositioning of the pedals.

The floor mats' fault

The infamous Toyota and Lexus recent giant recalls on SUA and attendant braking failure was caused by unsecured floor mats bunching up on the gas pedal and preventing full brake pedal depression. It was classified as a mechanical malfunction. At first, dealers devised a Velcro remedy until a hook and eyelet custom-made floor mat was redesigned and reissued to owners. Still, Toyota had to spend billions more on product liability court cases, far more than the actual simple fix and the resultant quality control redesign of products across its entire model range.

The wiring's fault

The Federal NHSTA records show the 1990 Jeep Cherokee's SUA as having had an electrical problem, whereby a current surge through the cruise control 'ACCEL' module caused the throttle to open even when the car was in "P". This raises the engine rpm and an unsuspecting driver, about to leave a parking space or garage, could drop the lever into "D" and inadvertently launch the car forward at full power.

The shifter's linkage fault

Prior to the 1980's Audi 5000 case, automatics, could easily be shifted without resistance or lock from P to R-N and D. When the car is old or when the linkages are worn out, it would not take much effort to accidentally drop the lever from P to R or from N to D, resulting in unintended acceleration. The Audi SUA debacle resulted in Audi's solution: the now common and federally mandated brake-ignition-shift lock wherein one cannot start an automatic car unless the lever is in P or N, and neither can one shift from P to R-N-D without depressing the brake pedal.

The trial and error mechanic's fault

Besides the above, my personal experience with friends who had SUA cases were usually tied to cars that had no official service representatives in the country then. In the 80's, a 1975 Volvo 142 from Clark Air Base, a 1977 Ford Club Wagon Balikbayan import and a 1984 Dodge Caravan Balikabayan import all had SUA incidents because of the poor quality of mechanical guess work done on them — cruise control vacuum lines were pinched, throttle cables were unsheathed/torn and linkages were gummed up or bent. It's no surprise then that car repairs nowadays had to evolve to computer diagnostics and replace-only-parts (not repairable) because of the dangers posed by tinkering done by inexperienced repairmen.

It's the computer's fault

Interestingly, as per NHSTA ODI (office for defect investigation) records, ever since the Audi brake-ignition-shift lock was introduced and in-car computer data bus networks have replaced the smattering of electro-solenoid relays and isolated crude circuits, SUA's due to electrical problems have subsided. There have been no SUA's that have been proven to be due to drive-by-wire computer glitches — so far. Hence, other than mechanical and electrical defects, it would seem that the most common cause of SUA is — and for many alpha males, next to impossible to admit to — driver error.

Driver error? No way!

So now, where does this place the constant and nearly 4-year stream of customer complaints on social media against SUA's by Mitsubishi Montero automatic? Almost all were attended to by the dealers and investigated by MMPC itself. Customers complain that they've lost so much time in these processes with MMPC failing or at least claiming to fail in duplicating the SUA incidents. Naturally, owners think this is all self-serving. And in the best US-style litigation-trigger happy complaint, owners fume that they were not either lent a car or promised a brand new replacement. But so far, MMC is abiding by our own anti-Lemon laws which are patterned after the US laws. And yet, MMPC offers to buy back the self-driving Monteros are spurned by the owners. Why not? Google, Apple and Mercedes-Benz are spending billions on research and poaching car executives to achieve autonomous drive cars or cars that drive themselves.

Filing suit

As in all cases of SUA, the burden of proof lies with the claimant. It's really his (complainant) word and against theirs (the car manufacturer). Which is why, if ever anyone is preparing to file suit or complain to the DTI or write some Congressman who heads a committee on vehicle faults or vehicle safety, there is no substitute for doing your homework and preparing your prosecution.

Credible evidence

First, there has to be credible witnesses. If you are the driver, and most male drivers are genetically loathe to ever admit it's their fault, you have to have someone back up your claim that your Montero suddenly accelerated on its own accord. CCTV camera footage is good evidence, but remember, this is not conclusive. Witnesses attesting to the SUA is worthy, but again, it is not always conclusive. If a hired driver is the culprit, it doesn't help the owner's burden of proof of the said driver is not available for cross examination or investigation. It also doesn't help the claimants' cause if the driver, unskilled in driving an automatic, is coached to lie as cross examination by expert resource persons and lawyers will smoke this out.

Burden of proof

How about witnesses? The testimonies of co-drivers or spouses as witness to the SUA incident will also have to pass the burden of proof as defense lawyers interpolate. Expect questions like "Are you really sure that the driver was not pressing on the gas pedal when you witnessed this SUA incident?" Or, "how sure are you that there wasn't a rolled up floor mat lodged about the gas pedal?" Having 4,000 or 400,000 names post the same SUA experience on social media is not conclusive proof, either. The only proof that is acceptable will, under oath, more or less hew to a storyline like this:

"Being a hot day, I wanted to start the Montero so that the air con can start cooling the interior while I go back and fetch my passengers. So I opened the driver's door, stood standing beside it, slid the key into the slot, made sure the shift lever was in "P" and started the engine. All of a sudden, the engine rose to high revs and launched the car forward in a cloud of black smoke, ramming through the garage door, speeding down the driveway, crossing the street in front of our house, then ramming into my neighbor's just-delivered brand new Rolls Royce, [or Bugatti, or Bentley, or Porsche, etc.etc.] parked on his curb. My spouse witnessed it all."

Numbers is not proof

Even if all unhappy Montero owners and the 4,000 or 400,000 names posted the same SUA story above on social media, it is still not enough proof. Viva Voce or strength in numbers won't work here. Impartial lawyers will tell you that huge numbers parroting the same incident cause is not sufficient proof. Why? Because for these claims of SUA to be believable, said SUA-prone vehicles must be able to duplicate and repeat the SUA again, preferably witnessed by the owner, together with impartial and objective witnesses, relevant government agencies, experts and even the court itself. All it takes is for one SUA incident to be duplicated by one and the same "guilty" Montero. And that seems to be a problem of most of the Montero claimants. Try as they might, the SUA never seems to repeat itself under the same conditions. Wrong loading i.e. loading gasoline in a diesel Montero, will make the vehicle surge, but if claimants think they can fool an investigating panel, think twice as lab tests of the loaded fuel is quick and accurate. And it will also harm the engine. Court arbiters will have no choice but to find favor for the defense as there is no incontrovertible proof that some computer glitch caused the SUA and it's not the triple bound floor mats or the driver's Crocs being 3 sizes too big.

Contrived crusaders

But what one should not do is to contrive and manufacture evidence, even under the guise of some altruistic crusade, imitating Ralph "Unsafe at any speed" Nader's save-the-world anti-car company crusade of the 60s. That is what happened to the Audi 5000 saga in the early eighties. Long before cable TV and internet TV streaming, regular terrestrial TV was the best way to get your message or cause or advocacy across. In the popular 1980s CBS TV program "60 Minutes", a dramatization of the Audi 5000 SUA was shown. But it was never mentioned that the SUA was contrived; a C02 canister was installed to inject gas into the line leading to the innards of the automatic gearbox to simulate the SUA. The dramatization misled hundreds of thousands of TV viewers to condemn Audi as another greedy car manufacturer, who cared not for driver safety.

Lying cheat

Later on, it was discovered that the SUA of the Audi was staged by a resource person out to blame Audi by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, neither CBS nor 60 Minutes ever apologized to Audi for all the harm it caused. And the harm continues as the staged dramatization not only killed Audi 5000 sales, it also decimated Audi 5000 resale value. This led to another court case against Audi by 7,000 owners, claiming that the plummeting used car value was Audi's fault. This case remains unresolved to this day.

Montero sales

As for the Montero, despite the hundreds of rants and raves against Mitsubishi on social media, despite the thousands of "likes" and sympathetic comments and even a media whispering crusade on how irresponsible Mitsubishi is, some Monteros, allegedly, remain "haunted" by such a "computer glitch". Despite all of this, we still have to see the Montero sales figures drop out of the top ten national sales rank, a distinction it has held since its 2008 launch. In fact, if it wasn't for the Mirage, the Montero's sales volumes never would have diminished.