So: Jim Sikes perpetrated a hoax, the media is confused, the demonization of Toyota is no longer so cut and dried, and the automobile as we know it is caught in the crossfire. Faced with all this, we have but one question: Why did no one see it coming?
Unintended acceleration is nothing new. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration receives countless complaints on the subject every year, and no make of car or driver demographic is left unscathed.
The volume and frequency of these complaints seem to ebb and flow with the cultural tide. Media coverage, statistical ignorance, and opportunism appear to have more to do with the recurrence of reported UA than anything else. And the patterns — Brian Ross and ABC reviving the 60 Minutes Audi hoax, a hefty swing in UA complaint sources toward older drivers (see our chart) — seem to have more to do with mass psychology and opportunism than technical problems.
Still, it's not all the media's fault. We are a nation that knows less and less about the cars that we drive, we spend more time on the road indulging our selfish whims, and we have allowed — nay, begged — Beige Bites Back to happen. Consider the following: In 1988, NHTSA concluded that the majority of the documented Audi acceleration incidents were caused by driver error. Shift interlock devices were developed to prevent accidental forward motion, and UA claims dropped off sharply in the years that followed. Did the about-face — 60 Minutes was wrong! Audi doesn't have it in for us! — change the country's relationship with the automobile? No. We moved on, we forgot, and we dug our own graves.
Those who do not learn from history, as the saying goes, are doomed to repeat it. And if the Toyota unintended acceleration incident isn't repeated history — or at least repeated knee-jerk paranoia — then I don't know what is.
The problem lies partly with feature bloat, and with our unwillingness to stop it. In the pursuit of a safer, more comfortable, and more effortless driving experience, we have added staggering complexity to a machine that was complex from the get-go. We piss and moan as cars grow heavier and more elaborate — even the fuel-conscious lobbies take issue with this, as it runs contrary to efficiency — but few of us vote with our wallets. The American dream dictates that our desires are nothing if not attainable, and we have been trained to never turn down a larger portion.
On a certain level, the tradeoff is understandable. Who in Anytown, USA would give up a quieter ride and the coddling comfort of a rolling living room for a semblance of awareness-promoting steering feel or driver involvement? Which is easier to sell: a machine that exudes sensible restraint, or a car aimed at catering to your every whim? In other words, in a world where money is the only thing that separates you from work, why should one of the richest nations on the planet bother with the effort of driving its own cars?
At the same time — and though this is a tired refrain, it remains relevant — we are becoming a nation of dullards. We lack the training to drive even our dumbed-down, increasingly nannified vehicles. Less than ten percent of Americans know how to operate a manual transmission, and while you could argue that such a statistic is merely a sign of changing times (who among us knows how to ride a horse or drive a car with manual spark advance?), it's indicative of a larger issue. States continue to cut back on driver education in schools, citing statistics that point to the decreasing relevance of behind-the-wheel training. (Do we revamp the training to make it worth a damn? No. Of course not. We cut it altogether.) What happened to shop class? How many schools have project cars? You could argue that these concerns are moot in the No User-Serviceable Parts Inside era, but that ignores the countless teenagers building homespun fuel-injection systems or Linux-powered vehicle brains in their parents' garages.
At heart, we are a short-sighted culture. When times are good, we kid ourselves into believing that companies like Toyota are looking out for the common good — How could they not? Their cars are reliable and efficient! Prius ads have trees in them! — rather than simply reading the needs of a market better than anyone else. When times are bad, we point fingers at a million culprits and cry out for blood. We have a fear of perspective and careful analysis, and we fool ourselves into thinking that there is such a thing as an electronically managed free ride.
In retrospect, our constant need for cultural grist has not helped us. We are media enablers; we eat up congressional feeds on CNBC and snap analysis from uninformed TV pundits. Yes, Toyota has initiated a couple of recalls, but does that explain the increased reports of unintended acceleration since the announcement? No.
Sheep. We want the beige so we can zone out or text or read the newspaper or listen to talk radio in our cocoon-like cars. We want to make it home in time to watch our corporate-owned cable news and eat our corn syrup-infused food and watch our mindless reality TV and get up to do it again tomorrow morning. We are the problem. Beige bites back? Ha. Unless we do something to stop it, it's going to get a whole lot worse.
Photo Credits: Getty Images (Toyota Dealers), StarkSilverCreek (Fake Audi Tweets)