Sudden accelaration is a rapid, unintended acceleration that occurs any time after the ignition is engaged. This sudden acceleration has been experienced by people in various vehicle models after putting their cars in drive or reverse. Oftentimes, the breaks cannot work quickly enough to avoid a crash. Sudden acceleration lawsuits, for a period of over ten years, saw courts usually ruling in favor of car companies and blaming drivers for these accidents. There has been a relatively recent reversal in this trend. In high-profile cases, trials have resulted in multi-million dollar decisions against Ford Motor Company and General Motors, finding that crashes were cause by negligently designed cruise control systems. Defective electric throttle control systems have also been blamed for sudden acceleration crashes.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the consumer group Center for Auto Safety, thinks malfunctioning cruise control systems are to blame for a high number of sudden acceleration accidents.
Ditlow co-authored a book called Sudden Acceleration: The Myth of Driver Error, dispelling NHTSA findings that most sudden acceleration accidents are attributed to driver error. The book also touched upon auto manufacturers withholding evidence in efforts to cut costs while increasing the use of electronics.
The relatively new technology called electronic throttle has also been argued as a leading cause of sudden acceleration. Electronic throttle control uses sensors to tell a cars computer how much to open the throttle, which lets in air, as well as how much fuel to inject into the engine to control speed.
The technology replaces a mechanical cable and can help with cost saving which is why automakers often like it, but lawyers defending sudden acceleration suits argue the electronics are often affected by glitches. Ditlow has also voiced his concerns with the advanced electronics saying, We are very concerned about it as you go more and more to drive by wire.
Complaints of sudden acceleration surfaced in the 1980s, and Audi of America almost suffered severe losses after claims that its Audi 5000 sedan was accelerating suddenly. When Audi installed shift-lock mechanisms, requiring a motorist to step on the brake before he/she is able to shift into drive or reverse, sudden acceleration claims dropped. In March 2004, the NHTSA began a preliminary investigation of the latest sudden acceleration claims.
The agency gathered information regarding 37 sudden acceleration complaints by owners of Toyota and Lexus cars. Sudden acceleration complaints began in the 1980s, and even though the number of sudden acceleration complaints was reduced in the 1990s after automakers added mechanisms known as shift-locks, cruise control systems began to be blamed in the mid to late 90s for unintended acceleration problems.
In 2003, the largest known judgment on sudden acceleration was ordered against General Motors. An injured woman and her husband claimed sudden acceleration in their 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass resulted in a crash, and a Missouri jury agreed, awarding the woman and her husband $80 million.