Louann Van Der Wiele is Vice President and Associate General Counsel, Chrysler LLC.

 

Few defect allegations against automakers have been more exhaustively investigated or more completely debunked than claims of sudden, unintended acceleration. 
 
Just this month (9/3/08), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) denied yet another petition to investigate reports of unintended acceleration, this time related to 2006 and 2007 Toyota Tacoma pickups. One quote from the ruling says it all:
 
" ... we [NHTSA] have been unable to determine a throttle control related or any underlying cause that gave rise to the complaint....In our view, additional investigation is unlikely to result in a finding that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists with regard to the Tacoma’s throttle control system ... " 
 
Toyota argued all along that the rise in complaints against the Tacoma was inspired by media publicity, not any real defect with the vehicle. NHTSA's decision not to investigate backs up this view - as does the entire history of unintended acceleration claims, which dates back to the 1980s. 
 
Remember the Audi 5000? Reports that the vehicle would suddenly accelerate without warning were eventually chocked up to driver error - but not before Audi's U.S. sales were devastated by a sensationalized "60 Minutes" story. 
 
Like most automakers, Chrysler has not been immune from these baseless charges. Back in 2002, NHTSA declined to open an investigation into allegations of sudden, unintended acceleration incidents with the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. "It appears," NHTSA stated, "that the predominant cause of sudden acceleration incidents involving the subject vehicles has been pedal misapplication." In other words: driver error.
 
Repeated examinations by NHTSA and auto engineers have never identified any specific defect in any vehicle that would lead to sudden, unintended acceleration. Neither have the trial lawyers and their hired experts; the best they can come up with is the Gremlin Theory that some unidentified or unidentifiable force residing deeply inside these vehicles must somehow be causing these incidents.
 
NHTSA's report on the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, however, didn't stop the International Carwash Association (ICA) from publishing false statements and malicious accusations about the Jeep brand on its website. Despite the fact that federal safety regulators concluded there is zero evidence that Jeep vehicles experience disproportionate incidents of sudden unintended acceleration claims at car washes (or anywhere else), Chrysler had to file litigation to compel the ICA to recant its false claims.
 
Although lengthy and expensive, that litigation eventually forced the ICA to remove its baseless allegations from its website and publish a "restatement" to set the record straight. The facts that the ICA acknowledged include: 
 
         The ICA's statements concerning Jeep vehicles and "sudden unintended acceleration" were not supported by any statistical analysis;
         The ICA's statements concerning Jeep vehicles and "sudden unintended acceleration" were not supported by any scientific study or research;
         The ICA did not perform an investigation regarding SUA incidents reported by its members. 
 
The ICA's "restatement" also reported what automakers and federal safety regulators have long known - namely that sudden, unintended acceleration is caused by driver error, not any defect with the Jeep Cherokee or Grand Cherokee (or the Tacoma, or the Audi 5000, or any other vehicle falsely maligned). As the ICA wrote
 
Some scientific studies and research have concluded that a cause of "sudden unintended acceleration" incidents is pedal misapplication by the operator. The International Carwash Association believes that the "We Care" safety practices - including placing the vehicle in park and fully depressing the brake pedal and visually verifying correct foot placement - are a car wash operator's best defense against SUA incidents and can improve safety in the handling of all vehicles. 
 

NHTSA's ruling probably won't end all the claims against the Toyota Tacoma.  Indeed, false accusations against the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee haven't stopped despite the ICA's admission that their statements concerning Jeep vehicles were not supported by any statistical analyses, scientific studies or research. But hopefully getting these facts out to the public will reduce the sensationalized reporting over these claims and encourage reporters to demand more than the Gremlin Theory when the next Tacoma or other vehicle target inevitably rolls around.