Acceleration is like fire: a good servant and a cruel master. Acceleration when you want it is one of the true joys of motoring. Acceleration when you don't is a nightmare. Alarmingly, it's a recurring nightmare, with the most recent incidents occurring just last month, and the largest recall in automotive history, from Toyota, was not long ago at all.
Unintended acceleration, whatever the cause, is a real issue, and, of course, I have a solution.
The biggest problem with the way we currently deal with unintended acceleration is that we're too focused on what's causing it. This sounds like a reasonable thing to be concerned with, but hear me out. Since the issue first started to get major publicity back in the 80s with the Audi 5000, the approach has always been to either isolate the technical problem or determine if it was driver error. The same questions are being asked today. The truth is it just doesn't matter.
As seen in the 2009-2011 Toyota recalls, one of the major stated causes for the unintended acceleration was floor mat issues. Floor mats slipping up under and jamming the pedals. That's a pretty low-tech issue. There are, of course, many more ways a car could unintentionally accelerate, from bugs in drive-by-wire throttle systems to genuine user error with pedal confusion or placement. The solution to this issue shouldn't be about what's causing it, since anything from a malicious computer virus to a crazed possum in your footwell could, in theory, cause the problem. The solution should be about safely stopping your out-of-control car while you're lavishly filling your pants in terror.
When you see videos or hear stories of crashes from unintended acceleration, most Jalopnik readers will probably have a few thoughts leap to mind: "I drive a manual, so I'd just hit the clutch," or "I'd put the car in neutral and make a controlled, elegant stop, to much applause," or "Why didn't they just turn the car off?"
These are all valid responses, but they're not really realistic. Manuals are, sadly, only a tiny fraction of the cars on American roads, and most drivers, when faced with a runaway car, are simply too panicked to think about putting the car in neutral or fumbling for the key, all while trying to steer away from everything else they're hurtling toward. Plus, for elderly or less confident drivers, these ideas may simply never occur. There needs to be a failsafe, panic-tolerant solution.
There is a solution. And, of course, it comes from race cars.
The answer is an emergency cutoff switch. Now, it's not one exactly like in racing cars, but the fundamental idea is the same. The switch needs to be big, obvious, and easy to activate. I'm thinking a nice big, red mushroom-type button that can be easily smacked with a panicked, flailing hand. It should be to the left of the driver (right on right-hand-drive cars), to keep smartass passengers from whacking it just for fun, like I probably would. Also, it can be activated from outside the car in an emergency where the driver is incapacitated but the car is still in motion.
Here's what the emergency cutoff switch needs to do in a regular passenger car:
• Disconnect the engine from the transmission.
• Drop engine revs to idle levels
• Activate hazard lights
• All hydraulic and electrical systems remain active
• Optionally, a distress call could be sent to a concierge service like OnStar or similar
All these things are certainly possible on modern, drive-by-wire cars. Just cutting the engine off isn't a good solution as that would kill the power assist to steering and brakes when they're needed most. Also, even turning off a modern car can be tricky in a panic— keyless entry systems with start buttons often require the start button to be held for a period of time to cut the car off, and even finding the button in a panic can be an issue. The lowering engine revs to idle speeds isn't so much necessary, but it will help lessen the driver's panic, as the engine won't be roaring like an aroused wildebeest anymore.
The button isn't really doing anything a normal, non-panicked driver couldn't do— it's just doing it all at once, with one simple smack of a hand. In a panic, a big, red, obvious button will be easy to see and react to, almost without thinking. This is the kind of thing that could save lives.
Plus, this would work regardless of issue. This would be a failsafe against bugs in engine computer software, wadded floormats, trying to drive while wearing flippers, poor pedal design, everything. As I said, the cause just doesn't matter. That can be figured out after your car is no longer a 2-ton missile heading into a preschool on puppy adoption day.
The last time I suggested making one of my suggestions mandatory on cars many readers suggested I was a dirty communist plotting to force America's mothers to work on collective farms. So I'll stop short of saying this absolutely needs to be federally mandated. But I won't lie; I'm thinking it.