The Pedal Error Error

If the Toyota Unintended Acceleration has taught us anything, it’s the importance of examining NHTSA’s process before accepting its conclusions. The authority of the federal government automatically confers, in large measure, a public (including the mainstream media) acceptance of its pronouncements of scientific certitude. Few take the time to study their foundations. To this end, SRS has devoted more time and resources to obtaining the agency’s original source documents, data and communications around investigations, rulemakings and NHTSA-sponsored reports than we care to count. We have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in pursuit of these informational bases.

Another thing we have learned: NHTSA really doesn’t want the public to know how it does what it does. Our FOIA requests have morphed into FOIA lawsuits (three and counting), as the agency either denies us information that is public or claims to have none, even when the crumbs NHTSA’s FOIA staff toss to us show unequivocally that, in fact, they do have the information.

And that brings us to Pedal Application Errors, NHTSA’s last nail in the Electronically-Caused UA coffin. This report made a number of strong claims regarding who is likely to make a pedal application error and how it is likely to occur. They do not bode well for any woman of a certain age who has the misfortune to be behind the wheel of an electronically caused UA. The report’s writers based on a variety of data sources, including crashes from the Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (MVCCS), the North Carolina state crash database, a media review of pedal misapplication news stories and the insights garnered from a panel of rehabilitation specialists. Naturally, we wanted to look at all these data, and we requested them.

The response from the government, to put it kindly, was less than complete. NHTSA claimed that it didn’t have any of the underlying data, except the list of crashes from the MVCCS. It sent us the transcript of the one-and-a-half day meeting of rehabilitation specialists and Dr. Richard Schmidt, that prodigious peddler of the all-purpose, wholly unsupported and unscientific pedal misapplication theory the auto industry – and NHTSA – loves.

The entire enterprise rests on the rather large assumption that pedal application errors are an unintended acceleration problem of sufficient size to warrant the use of NHTSA’s scant resources. Some of the rehabilitation specialists, who work with clients suffering from a range of cognitive and physical ailments that might actually lead a driver to misapply the pedal questioned this premise:

“I’ve seen thousands of Alzheimer’s patients, dementia patients; I’ve never seen one make an application error,” said Tom Kalina, of the Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern, Pennsylvania. “I’ve seen people with a lot of cognitive impairments. That’s the one thing they know how to do, just going back and forth between the gas and brake. There’s a lot of other executive functioning errors, but very rarely do I ever see a pedal error. The only time I ever see it is if there’s a sensory problem with the foot, inappropriate reception or numbness. The intention is to do the right thing, but they don’t know where their foot is and they hit the wrong pedal. Just about every case has been that way.”

That was confirmed by the study’s literature review, which provided “sparse evidence of the prevalence of pedal application errors. The studies included were all conducted with driving simulators, so may not reflect real-world driving behavior.”

Then there was the “over-representation” of older women in the data. Where does this come from?  The researchers had no clue, but a few theories: “greater exposure by women where these crashes occur most often (parking lots); a poorer “fit” in their cars due to shorter stature, which may increase the likelihood of a pedal application error; or a disproportionately high rate of one or more functional deficits that contribute to pedal errors, such as neuropathy.”

In statistical analysis, if you want to understand causes, rates are a good guide. But as in so much of what has passed for analysis from NHTSA on the issue of unintended acceleration, we don’t get rates, mostly raw numbers with few controls or no controls at all.

Then, Dr. Schmidt put his finger on something:

“What has this to do with unintended acceleration?” Schmidt asked.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Schmidt’s contributions to the field of unintended acceleration, he is a former Stanford University psychologist and ex-Exponent expert who has posited that unintended acceleration occurs when the driver intends to hit the brake, but places his or her foot on the accelerator instead. When the vehicle continues to move, rather than stop, the driver pushes harder until stopped – usually by an inanimate object. The driver is unaware of his or her mistake and will never admit otherwise. During the panel discussion, Schmidt demanded:

“Come on, guys, what is the evidence that anyone of those motor deficits cause unintended acceleration? What’s the evidence?”

The evidence the rehabilitation specialists presented were their own direct observations – albeit rare – of clients who misapplied a pedal because panic, confusion or numbness in their feet. And that’s a whole lot more evidence that Dr. Schmidt has ever been able to muster. In a deposition taken by attorney Thomas Murray Jr. in Stimpson v. Ford, Schmidt was unable to explain exactly at what point the driver mis-positions his foot in this sequence which results in what he deems a “classic” unintended acceleration crash. He called empirical research “one style” of research. He admitted that he knew nothing about automotive engineering or electronics. He conceded that he had never sought out any such information – yet freely equates the incidents in today’s electronically-based vehicles with those of the mechanical era. The driver must be at fault, he declares, because the manufacturer says there’s nothing wrong with the vehicle. His “model” is not derived by an actual experiment. No, it is derived from a “thought experiment.”

(In his ruling, Senior Judge William T. Swigert of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Sumter County, Florida, set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company and ordered a new trial in which the jury would only consider compensatory and punitive damages in Stimpson v. Ford.  In his order Judge Swigert heaped judicial scorn on Schmidt for the lack of any evidence for his position.) When Murray questioned Schmidt about empirical research showing this mis-positioning that is the linchpin of his entire career, he answered:

“Well, that research, I guess, would come from those unintended acceleration accidents themselves,” he replied.

This is science?

As for the 110 MVCCS crashes selected because they fit the word search criteria, only 31 were billed as “pedal misapplication errors.” Only two involved drivers saying that the vehicle ran away on them; 14 were self-admitted pedal errors; two were slips. The others involved someone other than the driver inferring a pedal misapplication.

Dr. Schmidt’s question bears repeating: “What has this to do with unintended acceleration” – as consumers in vehicles with electronic controls have been and are reporting their experiences to NHTSA?

Pedal Error Applications is of a piece with NHTSA’s conflation strategy. Claim an incident is an unintended acceleration, when there is no evidence to support it (see NHTSA EDR study); claim that the consumer data prove floor mat entrapment, when the complaint narratives show that consumers emphatically said that they were not; (denial of the Pepski petition) make an opera out of sticky pedals as a cause of unintended acceleration, when it isn’t. Throw anything and everything into the blender and pour out a tall frosty glass of Can’t-Be-Electronic.

NHTSA gets a few complaints from drivers about pedal spacing to be sure. But many, many raise the specter of electronic problems. Look at some of the complaints that led to Toyota’s latest floor mat recall for the 2010 Lexus RX350 and RX450 vehicles: Toyota and the Case of the Electronic Floor Mat Entrapment. Drivers are emphatically stating that there is no floor mat entrapment and that the brake malfunction light illuminated during the unintended acceleration. Read ODI complaint 10455619 about unintended acceleration in a 2004 Tacoma truck that recorded no Diagnostic Trouble Codes, from a consumer who described himself as an engineer who wrote a book on troubleshooting servo systems:

“I can’t believe that the designers did not build any redundancy into the feedback and control devices. This device is considered a major risk in a failure mode analysis. If I did that type of work in my position I would be fired and have and unending list of lawsuits brought against me. This truck has been incredible in terms of reliability however I am very surprised that a company as large as Toyota would leave something like this to chance. This device can easily fail in a way that would cause a life threatening situation.”

This is what is happening out there. Consumers are not just giving NHTSA a 4-1-1, they’re giving the agency a 9-1-1 about electronically-based design defects and the lack of redundancy in safety-critical components and functional safety standards. But NHTSA doesn’t want to look over here – and NHTSA does not want the public to know that automotive electronics can malfunction in ways that have not been anticipated, designed for, or regulated. It does not want the public to know that it has no handle on these burgeoning problems. Just announce another floor mat recall, and wrap it up boys and girls.

No, with its limited resources, NHTSA prefers to over there: backwards some 20 years and give “scientists” like Richard Schmidt a government-supported platform to spout nonsense.

NHTSA really ought to replace its current “People Saving People” with a sentiment more reflective of its regulatory and enforcement world view: “Don’t bother us. Cars are getting smarter. Drivers are getting dumber.”