In 1986, CBS' "60 Minutes" ran a scathing piece on problems with Audi, a fast-growing German import brand that was selling close to 75,000 units a year in the United States.
The broadcast took a look at reports that Audi 5000-S sedans with automatic transmissions were apt to accelerate at high speed from a dead stop when drivers shifted from park into drive or reverse. There were many reports of "unintended acceleration," and Audi almost went off the face of the Earth.
Unfortunately for Audi, CBS was wrong -- although it never apologized. Many years later I was on a panel with Ed Bradley, who had been the reporter on the segment. Bradley still would not admit that CBS had made a mistake.
Well, it looks like Toyota is the victim this time. Toyota says that most cases of crashes involving unintended acceleration in which drivers said they were stepping on the brake were caused by driver error, the same phenomenon that led to Audi's problems so many years ago.
Apparently, the drivers had their foot on the accelerator when they thought it was the brake. The faster they went, the more they pushed on the pedal, not realizing it wasn't the brake. They believed they were depressing the brake pedal, but they were wrong.
This time, however, there is a big difference. The black boxes that are now in many vehicles, including Toyota's, have reportedly demonstrated to the federal government that there were cases in which there was no pressure on the brake, only the accelerator.
Since the Audi problem of decades ago, the auto industry has spent tens of millions of dollars installing a safety device that requires your foot to be on the brake before you can put the vehicle into drive. It would appear that simply doesn't work once you are under way.
Sure, Toyota could have put the brake and accelerator pedals farther away from each other, but the bottom line is that drivers had their foot on the wrong pedal.
It's going to be up to the federal government to promote the findings. It probably won't be a great idea for Toyota to blame its customers. But with the black boxes, the facts seem undeniable. The overwhelming evidence points to the driver.