Sudden Acceleration: The Early Years

Don Sherman
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1957 Dodge Royal Lancer

1986 Audi 5000

Audi’s years in the barrel

In 1986, Audi’s climb towards the upper echelons of imported technology and luxury was rudely interrupted by a rash of “unintended acceleration” complaints. An Ohio housewife mowed down her six-year-old son after he exited the car to open the garage door. When the complaints of two New York women weren’t answered either by a manufacturer unable to find any mechanical or electronic problem, they instituted the Audi Victims Network and encouraged others to join their cause. In November of 1986, CBS’s 60 Minutes televised a sensational demonstration in which a rigged Audi 5000 was coaxed into accelerating without any hint of pressure on the gas pedal.

Audi sales plummeted from a peak of 74,061 units in 1985 to only 12,283 sales by 1991. Beginning in the 1989 model year, Audi even resorted to a name change: the Audi 5000S and CS models were relabeled Audi 100s and 200s, but to no avail.

Various fingers were pointed at electromagnetic interference, errant idle-speed controllers, floor mats that fouled the accelerator pedal, and the possibility that Audi drivers, in the heat of an emergency, were mistakenly flooring their gas pedals when they meant to apply the brakes.

Soon thereafter, NHTSA began investigating unintended acceleration claims surrounding 50 car models made by 20 manufacturers. As a partial solution Audi recalled thousands of 5000Ss and installed a brake-to-shift interlock device under pressure from NHTSA. In addition, a deflector was added to the accelerator pedal to keep it from being jammed by a misplaced floor mat. Another measure was raising the brake pedal to prevent a driver from pressing both the brake and the gas at the same time.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Audi 5000S had one of the lowest fatality rates of any car on the US market. Studies by NHTSA, Transport Canada authorities, and the Japanese Ministry of Transportation all concluded in 1989 that driver error, not any fault in cars such as the Audi 5000S, were the most likely cause of unintended acceleration. That didn’t hinder attorney Robert Lisco from pursuing a class-action law suit aimed at recovering the value lost to 350,000 Audi 5000 owners when their cars came under attack. That suit, now involving a mere 7500 owners, is still active in county courts near Chicago.

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