Toyota and Runaway Auto Technology

Why the increasing complexity of today’s cars led to the “stuck pedal” debacle.

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The sun was high, the road was dry, and I was cruising at 75 miles per hour on I-94 and slowly gaining on the car ahead of me. I tapped on the brake pedal to cut off the cruise command and slow the car. But it did not slow down.

Instead, the accelerator pedal suddenly went to the floor, as if jumped on by an invisible foot, and the sedan leaped forward. Startled, I tapped the brake several times to turn off the cruise command, but to no avail. I then mashed the brake pedal to the floor. This slowed it only a little, as the two pedals and their electronic control systems dueled, the engine raced, the brakes smoked, and the car continued to accelerate.

I shifted the car into neutral gear and then turned the ignition key to “off,” and the car began slowing down. It was a dead stick without power steering, but I was already in the left lane and the Interstate highway had a broad shoulder and grassy center median. I cruised off the highway and, after coming to a full stop on the grass, again turned on the ignition. The cruise command, at this point, was disengaged and I resumed the trip—using my own feet to control the pedals.

That car wasn’t built by Toyota. It was an Ambassador, the top-of-the-line of the sedans built in the 1970s by American Motors; then it was the fourth Detroit auto company and now it’s just another member of the automakers’ graveyard. The problem lay in the intricacies of the early days of electronic vehicular systems. Laptops hadn’t been invented then, and programmable systems were novelties, prone to failure. While advances in technology promised a lot for the future of the car industry, this early glitch showed the pitfalls of putting a computer chip in charge of a two-ton, fast moving machine.

American Motors eventually recalled cars with the advanced cruise command systems and modified them. The electronic comfort systems known as cruise control continued to improve and, over the decades, more and more technology was added to vehicles.