Is the Real Toyota Problem Misplaced Feet?

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The New York Times op-ed page is a hotbed of contrarianism on the Toyota recall. On Wednesday, Robert Wright argued safety fears had been blown out of proportion, insisting it's a patriotic duty to fight hysteria and buy Toyota.

Thursday, Richard Schmidt crafts an even more remarkable op-ed. The Obama administration has suggested "smart pedals" might solve the problem of sudden acceleration. "But based on my experience in the 1980s," writes Schmidt, "helping investigate unintended acceleration in the Audi 5000, I suspect that smart pedals cannot solve the problem." That's because, "unbelievable as it may seem ... sudden acceleration is very often caused by drivers who press the gas pedal when they intend to press the brake."

How is that possible? Schmidt reviews the frequency of sudden acceleration complaints among older drivers, "drivers who had little experience with the specific car involved ... and people of relatively short stature." Here's the idea:

Several researchers hypothesized how a driver, intending to apply the brake pedal to keep the car from creeping, would occasionally press the accelerator instead. Then, surprised that the car moved so much, he would try pressing harder. Of course, if his right foot was actually on the accelerator, the throttle would open and the car would move faster. This would then lead the driver to press the "brake" harder still, and to bring about even more acceleration. Eventually, the car would be at full throttle, until it crashed. The driver's foot would be all the way to the floor, giving him the impression that the brakes had failed.

Could error and panic have led to the Toyota accidents? Schmidt says if he and others are right, "smart pedals" won't stop complaints of sudden acceleration. What they could do, though, is confirm the driver error hypothesis.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.