A Race to Cure Unintended Acceleration

Having prodded U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA last week to take a more comprehensive "fresh approach" and find the real cause of sudden acceleration problems in cars, Edmunds.com Inc. and its CEO are about to deliver one themselves. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company announced Tuesday it is drafting rules for a $1 million prize "to attract the best thinkers in the world to apply themselves to determine what is really causing sudden unexpected acceleration in vehicles."

One such smart thinker, Carnegie Mellon University's Paul Fischbeck, a professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy, already has figured out how much risk Toyota owners take when they drive one of the company's recalled vehicles. His answer: about 2 percent.

Fischbeck based his calculation on average annual mileage for U.S. vehicles (about 13,000 miles) and the number of recalled Toyotas (2.3 million), for which about 340 fatalities occur annually for causes unrelated to the accelerator. The accelerator problem adds about six deaths per year, so the accelerator problem is increasing the driving risk by about 2 percent, Fischbeck noted Feb. 25.

If every U.S. vehicle had an accelerator problem -- we'll get back to Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl and that $1 million prize in a moment -- 600 more vehicle deaths would occur every year, Fischbeck concluded, adding that driving a recalled Toyota about one half mile less each day would be equivalent to driving a vehicle without the problem. Fischbeck said he's only trying to point out that the hearings and debate about Toyota's recalls have not included a discussion of the actual risk of driving a recalled vehicle. Parking one and walking instead would be much more dangerous than driving it, and driving while using a cell phone would be much more dangerous than having a stuck accelerator, he noted.

"Bottom line, it is important to keep risks in perspective," he said in the online article Carnegie Mellon posted. "The stuck accelerator problem does make driving riskier and needs to be fixed. But at the same time, the increased risk is very small."

Fischbeck knows a lot about risk. He and some colleagues have developed a tool that uses MicroMorts (a one-in-a-million chance of dying) and ranks the risk of dying by various causes.

Edmunds.com's Anwyl, writing to LaHood on Feb. 25, said his company has reviewed the published complaint data available on NHTSA's Web site. "Some interesting facts have emerged," he wrote. "The first is that since Toyota first announced a safety alert regarding floor mats and the linkage to vehicle acceleration late last year, their complaint volume has skyrocketed. Prior to that point, their complaint volume for this issue was above the norm, but not markedly so. Make the reasonable assumption that floor mats and sticky throttles can account for some of this volume, and their experience is consistent with industry standards.

"But this illustrates the key point: Every car company has a level of complaint volume from consumers relating to vehicles that suffered unintended acceleration. (As poor as their response may have been, Toyota is actually the only company I can remember actually doing anything to address these complaints.) No matter how hard the questioning at next week's Senate hearing, what won't be forthcoming is the answer we all need to hear: What is behind this malady of unintended acceleration affecting all manufacturers and of such concern to consumers?

"Unintended acceleration is a problem stretching at least as far back as the investigation triggered by 60 Minutes' coverage of issues with the Audi 5000. It hasn't gone away, but I think could benefit from a fresh approach. DoT and NHTSA should take the lead in coordinating an effort that involves all manufacturers. Sharing data and working collaboratively, perhaps together an answer can be found that working individually has rendered elusive.

"If driver error is the issue, let's say so once and for all. If design issues are involved, let's identify and fix them. If there is a workaround, let's find it. Most of all, let's get this issue -- and the justifiable concern it creates in the minds of consumers -- behind us."

The rules for the $1 million contest will be announced soon, the company said. Participants will have to "demonstrate in a controlled environment a repeatable factor that will cause an unmodified new vehicle to accelerate suddenly and unexpectedly." To discuss unintended acceleration on Edmunds.com's CarSpace forum, click here.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Mar 03, 2010