I was in high school in the late 1980’s when NHTSA (pronounced “nit-suh”), Transport Canada, and others studied complaints of unintended acceleration in Audi 5000 vehicles. Looking back on the Audi issues, and in light of my own recent role as an expert investigating complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, there appears to be a fundamental contradiction between the way that Audi’s problems are remembered now and what NHTSA had to say officially at the time.
Here’s an example from a pretty typical remembrance of what happened, from a 2007 article written “in defense of Audi”:
In 1989, after three years of study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued their report on Audi’s “sudden unintended acceleration problem.” NHTSA’s findings fully exonerated Audi… The report concluded that the Audi’s pedal placement was different enough from American cars’ normal set-up (closer to each other) to cause some drivers to mistakenly press the gas instead of the brake.
And here’s what NHTSA’s official Audi 5000 report actually concluded:
Some versions of Audi idle-stabilization system were prone to defects which resulted in excessive idle speeds and brief unanticipated accelerations of up to 0.3g. These accelerations could not be the sole cause of [long-duration unintended acceleration incidents], but might have triggered some [of the long-duration incidents] by startling the driver.”
Contrary to the modern article, NHTSA’s original report most certainly did not “fully exonerate” Audi. Similarly, though there were differences in pedal configuration compared to other cars, NHTSA seems to have concluded that the first thing that happened was a sudden unexpected surge of engine power that startled drivers and that the pedal misapplication sometimes followed that.
This sequence of, first, a throttle malfunction and, then, pedal confusion was summarized in a 2012 review study by NHTSA:
Once an unintended acceleration had begun, in the Audi 5000, due to a failure in the idle-stabilizer system (producing an initial acceleration of 0.3g), pedal misapplication resulting from panic, confusion, or unfamiliarity with the Audi 5000 contributed to the severity of the incident.
The 1989 NHTSA report elaborates on the design of the throttle, which included an “idle-stabilization system” and documents that multiple “intermittent malfunctions of the electronic control unit were observed and recorded”. In a nutshell, the Audi 5000 had a main mechanical throttle control, wherein the gas pedal pushed and pulled on the throttle valve with a cable, as well as an electronic throttle control idle adjustment.
It is unclear whether the “electronic control unit” mentioned by NHTSA was purely electronic or if it also had embedded software. (ECU, in modern lingo, includes firmware.) It is also unclear what percentage of the Audi 5000 unintended acceleration complaints were short-duration events vs. long-duration events. If there was software in the ECU and short-duration events were more common, well that would lead to some interesting questions. Did NHTSA and the public learn all of the right lessons from the Audi 5000 troubles?