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Pedals.

Your car has a built-in disaster trap, but you’re so used to it you’re probably not even aware of its danger.

Think brake pedal and accelerator. If an engineer today came up with the idea that two controls governing opposite outcomes would be placed inches apart and be operated by the same foot performing the same pushing motion he would be forthwith stripped of his pocket protector and directed back to the drawing board. Nincompoop.

Think brake, accelerator and the driver’s right foot.

Almost since the horseless carriage was loosed on public thoroughfares it has been SOP that a pushing motion of the right foot directed a car to Go as well as to Stop. Exactly which is ordered — Go or Stop — is a matter of barely two inches either direction. Maybe the notoriously hard-headed Henry Ford was right in his reluctance to move the wheel-mounted hand control for the accelerator on his Model T to the floor where those of his competitors dwelt. Conveniently next to the accelerator pedal.

He yielded. And now universally Stop and Go pedals sit side by side in the darkened reaches of the floorboard to be down-pushed in the quest of opposite outcomes by an assortments of Air Jordans, Doc Martens, Fryes, Thom McCanns, Manolo Blahniks, Guccis, flip flops, Crocs or bare tootsies. Clearly this configuration triggers that familiar law: If something can go wrong it will.

And it has.

The automobile has been with us for more than a century. In that time countless drivers have yielded to Murphy’s Law. They have pushed the accelerator when they meant to push the brake, and probably vice versa. But unintended braking at worst raises ire and bruises a bumper. Accelerating without intending to has killed and maimed many: hand-holding kindergartners lined up by their school door; office workers waiting for a bus; Saturday shoppers browsing a street market.

Then there are the florist shops, store-front clinics, tobacconists and newsstands that have hosted the rude front quarters of invading cars and trucks. Their drivers thought that they were braking, right foot down. Right motion, wrong pedal. Errant vehicles with similarly certain but mistaken drivers have also invaded the kitchens, foyers and bedrooms of houses.

This wrong-pedal acceleration is worsened by what is an almost universal human tendency: if something doesn’t work, keep doing it - but harder. The right foot pressure isn’t stopping the car! So increase the effort. Wrecked cars have been found with the accelerator pedal bent or broken, witness to the power of effort renewed in the face of failure. If the “braking” you’re doing makes you go faster then push that same pedal with all you’ve got. Sound reasonable? Of course not, but reason has fled in the face of panic. Push!

The first thing out of the mouths of these drivers, stunned amidst the shattered glass and scattered roses, in the tangle of broken and crying children, is “my brakes failed.”

Later the police report might amplify those words: “I was pushing as hard as I could and the brakes wouldn’t work.” Closer scrutiny might find the broken accelerator pedal. The driver was indeed pushing hard but not on the pedal he assumed he was pushing. That was what was found in some of the cases of “unintended acceleration” that were epidemic in the late 80s and, after a biased report on “60 Minutes” (and a rerun) almost drove Audi off the stage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cleared the company of any responsibility but sales of “the killer car” fell precipitously and it took at least a decade to recover.

Audi wasn’t the only one with “unintended acceleration” problems back then but the public can deal with only one name at a time. It was Audi that became the poster child and suffered most.

Now history, like a brain-befuddled crone, has repeated itself. Now in the first decade of the 2000’s it is Toyota’s name leading the disaster parade. And something new has been added — electronic controls with Ford’s cruise control system also creating problems and drawing attention.

In 2004 the mystery of unattended accelerating began making news. Ill-fitting foot well carpets were blamed, then — shades of HAL and another 2000-based disaster — Toyota’s electronic accelerator attracted fingers of blame. Toyota was stunned, befuddled and late to respond leaving the schoolyard kids to nyah-nyah-nyah. Goodie-Two-Shoes is making mistakes.

Even before the ordered report by NASA for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was completed the evidence was mounting that most of the crashes (some with fatalities) that were associated with Toyota’s unintended acceleration were — as with Audi’s — a result of driver error. A locking of the right foot to the wrong neighboring pedal. (The NASA report released February 8, 2011, said that no flaws were found in Toyota’s electronic throttle control system that could have caused the unintended acceleration problems. The causes had to be mechanical such as a sticky gas pedal or an intrusive floor mat or driver behavior. But the matter wasn’t ended: lawyers for several California plaintiffs immediately disputed the findings saying the investigation was not extensive enough.

Toyota, once at the zenith of the world’s respect for reliability, safety, and all the good things (at least those on the dull side) in motordom was severely damaged in the marketplace. Forced to offer un-Toyota-like incentives and rebates and deals that at least kept the turnstiles busy Toyota was the only car company not scoring sales increases as the recession looked as if it might recede.

Toyota lost market share and sales gains in both October and November while America’s bankruptcy twins – GM and Chrysler – were scoring double-digit upswings. Toyota correctly pointed out that some blame for the lack of sales was clearly because they rejected most fleet sales, an easy donor of high sales figures. Toyota, perhaps, was looking to the future and did not want a reputation as a rental fleet Nancy. The company has plenty of cash reserves and new product coming and apparently hopes to wait out the effects of the blow the unintended acceleration has dealt them

Given patience, and their past successes, Toyota can look over the seas to Audi, now arguably the healthiest of the European breeds with startling new cars meeting up with eager buyers.

In the meantime all you drivers should keep in mind that Go and Stop are inches apart on your floorboard. And above all keep this is mind: If what you’re doing doesn’t work STOP DOING IT.

New CarsEuropeUSA

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Comments

If you’re driving a two-pedal car, as more of us probably will be before long, there is always the option of left-foot braking. I’ve read opinions on this pro and con, but my own experience is that a car thus driven is much more nimble in traffic and, with a bit of practice, a lot handier at carving through our LA County canyon roads and hillside goat tracks.

As for people losing track of which pedal is which, I’m afraid that the only sure remedy would be to give everyone some track instruction. I’m old enough to have had to learn the double-clutch-downshift routine in cars whose pedals occupied a space the size of a small hankie, which trains the various areas of one’s right foot to know what is where.

Posted by Will Owen on April 07, 2011

Way back over a half-century ago, the chief designer at Mercedes said the reason their brake pedals were so small on autotranny cars is that they didn’t want to lure left foot braking by making the pedal longer so as not to confuse a driver who would also drive a 3-pedal car: therefore the brake pedal on Mercs was the same narrow size on sticks and automatics.  Having lost my lower right leg recently, my therapist (who sez with my upcoming C-leg I’ll theoretically be able to ride a motorcycle) made sure I was planning on left foot braking any car I drive.  Simple explanation:  I’ll be working the accelerator with my right foot, but obviously my new leg is not connected to my nervous system!  I’ll be operating the pedal by moving my HIP!  And since I can’t feel anything with that appliance, even though the action is possible, he doesn’t want me trying to pull my foot up a defined amount, move it left just a certain amount, and then push on where I hope the brake pedal is, by moving my hip!  Much better to be using my real leg and foot.  I’ll be able to carefully drive a stick, but you should’ve seen his expression when I told him that just for fun I might try heel-and-toeing once or twice.

Posted by anatoly arutunoff on April 12, 2011

 

 

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