Two Tools Tesla Has To Fight Unintended Acceleration Claims That Toyota and Audi Didn't Have - And One It Lacks
The following is an opinion story:
It Began With Audi
First, it was Audi's turn to be the car that everyone loved to point to as the car that would run away without driver input causing damage, destruction, and death. If you remember the 1980s the Audi saga is surely familiar to you. 60 Minutes ran a segment covering the issue. Multiple recalls offering a solution in search of a problem were conducted. A lawsuit spanning 3 decades ensued.
Then It Was Toyota
Next, it was Toyota's turn to be the whipping boy. This time, it wasn't just NHTSA that got involved. The FBI investigated Toyota. NASA was asked to help. In the end, a settlement of $1.2 billion was the solution. I owned one of the vehicle that the settlement covered. I received $29. Lawyers received millions. There was no real cause ever found. No real fix ever instituted. People just moved on. Cars of all makes, models and generations continue to have unintended acceleration problems.
Now it's Tesla's turn to try to explain the unexplainable. Why a car they make is accelerating when its owner feels it should not. Tesla has benefitted from three new technologies developed to limit unintended acceleration that it can employ to help prevent the issue. First, a "gear" selector interlock. Tesla could prohibit its vehicle to be placed into a forward motion without the driver first having a foot on the brake. Modern cars of every brand employ this technology. Next, Tesla can employ programming that will not allow for two-foot driving. A car with this technology can either be braking, or it can be accepting input from the power pedal. Not both. If the brake is pressed, the accelerator is programed to go dead. Last, Tesla can employ simple floor mat securing pins that prevent a floor mat from riding up into the pedal areas and causing mayhem. In almost a decade of testing vehicles, I have not tested many that did not employ all three of these technologies.
Two New Technologies That Will Help Tesla
However, these are not the two critical technologies that Tesla can employ in its defense. The first is data logging. Tesla vehicles have the ability to track the inputs and outputs the car receives and produces. This will be very helpful in doing post-crash analysis. It should help to prove, in Tesla's defense, that the whole thing is hogwash. Or, it might show that it is not. How will Tesla fans react if they find out a Tesla datalogger shows a Tesla vehicle did, in fact, accelerate without driver intending it to? That would be interesting.
The second is automatic emergency braking (AEB). Tesla entered the modern automotive age just as AEB was flowering. Not all Tesla vehicles on the road have the technology, but most do. Tesla was one of the last brands in its price segment to employ autobraking, but it did catch up. Today all of its vehicles sold have the technology standard. AEB can and does intervene in situations where a vehicle may, as an example, suddenly accelerate toward your garage wall. We know because we have had AEB work in exactly that situation many times. In fact, the technology is oversensitive if anything. AEB should work regardless of where a driver's foot is. Floor the power pedal, or floor the brake. It makes no difference. The whole point of AEB is that it can (and often does) over-ride driver inputs to prevent a crash. It should brake and disable the power to the wheels if the driver is flooring the power pedal and a solid object is detected ahead.
Related Story (2017): Tesla Adds Auto Braking, But Just To Meet Minimum Requirements
Tesla's Possible Defense and Brand Management
As Tesla enters the virtual reality of the unintended acceleration stigma, it will be very interesting to see how Tesla handles this situation going forward. Tesla fans and Elon Musk wish to pin this entire thing on a short-seller conspiracy. That's fine by this writer. However, anyone who has followed Tesla knows that owners have reported unintended acceleration in Tesla's own forum and in other ways for years. A lawsuit was brought against Tesla in 2017 for unintended acceleration. And then a class-action suit was filed. Tesla settled it in 2018. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
As the NHTSA investigation into unintended acceleration begins to unfold, watch for how the Tesla data logging facts turn out. Watch for the reaction from Tesla if a vehicle with AEB is proven to have crashed when the driver was providing a power input. Arguing the vehicle was not designed to stop itself is going to fall flat. A lawyer is going to drool at the possibility of Tesla using that defense given that it has names for its driver-assist systems including "Autopilot" and "Full Self Driving."
What Tesla Is Lacking
Tesla should look back to the Audi and Toyota sagas and prepare for a defense that is 50% engineering analysis and 50% brand management. Since Tesla has no PR employees or PR agency professionals that respond to automotive media requests for information or support, and subsequently has no goodwill on which to draw to get its side of the story out, Tesla had better hope the engineering part goes its way indisputably. As the prior two examples show, an automaker's reputation can be nearly destroyed and billons spent defending against this hard to disprove issue. And the media relish the chance to cover such topics.
John Goreham is a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career and dedicated himself to chasing his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and connect with him at Linkedin.