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February 03, 2010


This whole thing is just getting curiouser and curiouser. First the floor mats, then the linkages, and now I'm seeing stories that seem to indicate there may be a software problem causing sticky Toyota throttles. But, I did go out and check my 4Runner - nope, no hairy appendage under the gas pedal. I'm good now, right?

I suppose there could be a software problem, but so far that seems like speculation.

Pedal to the metal, Les.

There is a way, and only one way, to overcome rapid uncontrolled acceleration in a car. I determined this many years ago when the problem was with VW Rabbits, called Runaway Rabbits then. Just like today, no one could find evidence of pedals jamming. No one could find evidence of floor mats catching. But for lack of any other evidence, that's what the carmakers always claim. It reminds me of the Wenatchee child molesting trials, where the very lack of any physical evidence was accepted as evidence of sexual crimes.

In the VW case, I, as the head of the APA's office in Ottawa, Canada, worked with a forensic engineer,Bob Jerabek, who also happened to own not one but two VW Diesel Rabbits. He loved the engineering, and was able to tune them to achieve 70 mpg. He determined something really interesting. He found the design of the engine caused some of its oil to pool in a cavity, and at a certain point, it could ignite and the engine would consume it as fuel. This manifested itself in sudden uncontrollable acceleration. It took control completely out of the hands and feet of the driver, and gave it to the engine. VW of course, denied it, and claimed it was all due to driver "pedal error", essentially claiming its customers were the stupidest drivers on Earth. Eventually they switched blame to floor mats and jammed pedals, much as Toyota has.

It transpired that Jerabek's car ran away from him one day. Fortunately, it was on the 401 in Toronto, a straight, flat, wide highway, so no one was killed. He tried to brake, with no result. He even turned off the engine and pulled out the key, with no change in acceleration. This was way beyond pedal error or floor mats. After a couple of eternal minutes, the engine seized up and the brakes could take over. VW itself took the car away, never to be seen again.

In talking about it, I chided him for not simply pulling it into neutral. That embarrassed him, which was not an easy thing to do. But I had hit on the simple, elegant solution. By disengaging the engine from the wheels, it no would no longer matter that the car was accelerating. The brakes would then work. Brakes can overcome speed, but they simply cannot overcome powerful acceleration. They're not designed for that. The only thing that will work is disengagement. In his case, simply pushing the clutch in would have done it, but he, like everyone in that situation, panicked for lack of solution.

It doesn't matter what the cause of Toyota's problem is. Doesn't matter if it's floor mats, pedals, electronics, on board computers or whatever. The blame game does not interest me. But as long as we sell internal combustion cars, every driver must be given this warning, every time a car is purchased or rented:

In case of sudden uncontrolled acceleration, pull it into neutral. Nothing else can stop it. Nothing else will work. Your life depends on it.

This is a 30 year old problem, with a 30 year old solution. There is no need to go through this agony with every carmaker, with lives lost in between. The workaround is simple. Neutral. That's all you need to remember.

Very interesting, David. Thanks for that.

I was a bit surprised to find the exact same comment (by dwineberg) on the cnet article:

And I read in one article that some cars won't allow the transmission into neutral when the engine revs above a certain rpm. And one vehicle allows a shift only to a "hidden" neutral in that situation. But now I can't find that particular article. In any case, it's probably going to take cool, quick action to avoid a bad day if one experiences the runaway acceleration.

If it can't be shifted into neutral then that really would present a situation, Les.

The media is full of panic inducing stories on the Toyota safety recall notice which is being sent out to customers to deal with the rare, potential safety issue affecting the gas pedal.

Nice hint! Your tips will probably not remain unnoticed. It will be followed for sure by your dear customers. Thank you for sharing it.

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