Ford Unintended Acceleration Hopping that Class Action Train

It’s Ford’s turn to take a ride down the Unintended Acceleration (UA) class action track. The civil lawsuit, filed in the southern district of West Virginia, with plaintiffs from 14 states, seeks economic damages from any Ford vehicle manufactured between 2002 and 2010 equipped with an electronic throttle control system but not a brake override system. This civil lawsuit seeks economic damages only on behalf of Ford owners and lessors who relied on Ford’s representations of vehicle safety in choosing their products.

As in the recently settled Toyota MDL, the remedy is a brake override system. Hopefully Ford will design one that works in most UA scenarios – unlike Toyota’s version, which does not override the command to accelerate if the brake is already depressed when the UA occurs or at low speeds. (Sorry, all you plate-glass-breaking, drive –through, curb-hopping Toyota parkers who have the misfortune of experiencing a UA event while riding the brakes into a parking spot.)

While Toyota has gotten most of the ink on UA, it is hardly the only automaker grappling with electronic malfunctions in its vehicles. A casual survey of some of pending or recently retired National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigations and news stories about wild terrifying trips on our nation’s highways shows that Hyundai, Mercedes Benz, Honda, Ford and others have been associated with Unintended Acceleration and Unintended Braking.

Ford, you may recall, was the target in 2011 of Judge William T. Swigert’s ire for lying to the court, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as its own expert witnesses on its knowledge of UA. Swigert, Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford in Stimpson v. Ford, because the automaker defrauded the court by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and for concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles.

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

To steal a line from Bogie: “Of all the publications in all the websites in all the world, she walks into Corporate Counsel.” She – being Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator from Israel who was tasked with translating from Japanese into English documents regarding Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Corporate Counsel -- being the self-described “leading digital destination for in-house counsel to find breaking news and practical information.” And this bit of breaking news? When you lie to the world about an automotive electronics problem that has the potential to result in fatal crashes, don’t expect every underling to keep your secrets.

The story, entitled Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration? (Spoiler alert: the answer is: No.) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a company in disarray with a technically challenging problem that its technicians weren’t looking too hard to solve, while its legal and public relations gears clicked into place to drive the denial machine forward. Our favorite:

“Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).

‘Tinto is extremely pessimistic,’ Hagiwara wrote, ‘and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can't completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).’ Tinto's primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): ‘For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year's situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.’ That failure, Tinto said, ‘may be a violation of the TREAD Act’—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.”

Triple Threat? The GAO Audits Saferproducts.gov

Three years ago, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began to solicit the public’s advice and counsel on the development of a consumer complaint database, manufacturers and the purveyors of consumer products forecast the end of capitalism. The database would be full of false reports, besmirching the snowy reputations of good and humble companies, who existed only to serve their customers according to the highest standards of retail integrity. And as this pool of complaints spread and deepened, tort lawyers would cast their lines, hooking cases with no actual merit but heavy with potential to drive said good and humble companies out of existence.

They stamped their feet and waved their fists, but the database was mandated as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. A few rearguard actions were mounted to kill its funding, but they met with no greater success.

Saferproducts.gov debuted in March 2011. If you are afraid you missed the apocalypse, no worries. It didn’t happen. According to a rather mild – dare we say boring – Government Accounting Office report, the rumors of the free market’s demise at the hands of a consumer compliant database were greatly exaggerated. In fact, few consumers have actually used Saferproducts.gov to report an incident – only 12,030 from April 2011 to January 2013. The GAO, which conducted the performance audit from July 2012 to March 2013, found that more than 97 percent who used the website to report an alleged product failure identified themselves as consumers. In more than half the cases, the reporter identified him or herself – or a relative (parent, child, spouse) as the victim.

Most of the consumers who test drove the website for the GAO auditors found it easy to use. None of the group had heard of Saferproducts.gov before, and only a few understood the basic mission of the CPSC. Some were put off by requests that reporters register with the website. A few suggested helpfully that the website would be more aptly named Unsafeproducts.gov. (Now would that go over big with industry.)  

Another Secret Chevy Volt Investigation?

One word journalists like to use in headlines about the all-electric Chevy Volt is “shock” – as in “Electric Shock: Is GM Really Losing $49,000 on Every Volt Sale?” and “Chevy Volt Continues to Shock and Awe After a Week on the Road” and “Chevrolet Volt: Electric sedan sends shock waves through auto industry.”

An electric vehicle is going to invite those metaphors, right? But three months ago, a driver from California made a complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that was literally shocking. On December 1, the driver received what was described as a significant electric shock from the gear shifter:

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