Cars Won't Be Fully Safe Until All Drivers Understand Them

Illustration for article titled Cars Won't Be Fully Safe Until All Drivers Understand Them

We’re now several years past the unintended acceleration scandal that cost Toyota billions of dollars over what we now know for sure was almost entirely human error. But today, our cars are starting to drive themselves. If you don’t see the problem with this, you should.


I bring this up because Toyota’s unintended acceleration mess, and the lessons we learned from it—or more importantly, didn’t learn from it—was the focus of this week’s Malcolm Gladwell podcast, Revisionist History. I was a guest on it to discuss the case, as was Car and Driver’s Eddie Alterman.

It’s very much worth a listen for people who still believe in the importance of human driving.

In case you’ve forgotten, starting in the late 2000s Toyota was deluged with reports of “runaway” vehicles. This led to lawsuits, federal investigations, recalls, frenzied and outright fraudulent news stories, and a black eye it took the automaker years to recover from.

Ultimately, the cause of these unintended acceleration incidents was deemed to be “pedal misapplication”—drivers hitting the gas instead of the brake—or in some cases, sticky floor mats. But reports of flaws in the cars’ electronic control modules were never substantiated. (Toyota ended up spending billions to settle those lawsuits, on a criminal investigation, and on recalls anyway.)

Gladwell deems it a “media circus” pushed by embarrassed drivers, regulators, lawyers and other opportunists who didn’t really understand how cars work. If you’re the kind of person who does, it’s a nice bit of vindication:

I’ve used the phrase “car guys” in this episode a few times... what’s interesting about the car guys is none of them doubted ever this is a problem caused by drivers. Because they understand what a car is—it’s a complicated mechanical object that requires attention and skill to be operated safely. And non-car people have lost sight of that fact.


“The average driver just expects a car to be completely flawless and to save their lives under any circumstances,” C&D’s Alterman adds.

So where are we at now, in 2016? Things aren’t better. Semi-autonomous cars are already on our roads and fully self-driving cars are on the horizon, but we as drivers haven’t shown any progress in becoming safer or smarter.


Maybe Tesla’s Autopilot isn’t truly ready for primetime, but the driver in the fatal Model S wreck this summer was still reportedly watching a portable DVD player instead of minding the car, contrary to its instructions. And just this week in China, we saw an Autopilot crash that could have easily been avoided by someone paying even a modicum of attention.


The current administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark Rosekind, seems to understand that auto safety must be treated as a human problem as well as a technological one. Here’s what he had to say this week, according to Automotive News:

“In the auto industry, we’re always looking at changing the technology, because changing the human would be really hard,” Rosekind said here today at CAR’s Management Briefing Seminars. “We’re not going to change us. We can change our behavior, but that is really hard.”

Instead, he argued, continually improving safety technology must go hand-in-hand with improving driver behavior to decrease traffic fatalities.

“The technology doesn’t always work, and humans aren’t always perfect, but I think the combination of the two could get us to zero,” Rosekind said.


But we’re not getting better at driving. We’re increasingly trusting technology that is new and unproven that we still don’t understand. The Autopilot crashes prove this. And humans seem destined to increasingly rely on drivers’ aids and self-driving systems when some knowledge about how cars work—and some awareness on the road—would probably go a lot further in making us safer.

Zero traffic fatalities is a noble goal. But even if cars are fully capable of operating themselves, that goal will never be achieved until we can be bothered to take some responsibility for the machines we trust our lives to.

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.


I know this is Jalopnik so I will be taken out and shot for saying this, but this is why we need better public transportation and more walkable communities. So many people just don’t care at all about cars or driving and these are typically your inattentive drivers. They see a car as a chair in a box that gets you from place to place while those of us who are enthusiasts see it as so much more. Because the act and the object hold no interest to them, they do the bare minimum or sometimes less to make it work and consequently they are more likely to be unsafe. So why not relieve these folks from having to deal with driving?

In my pre-enthusiast days (not all of us grow up as car people) I happily lived without a car in a very walkable urban neighborhood with easy access to busses and rail when needed and quick taxi service. It was great! And that’s just in a mid-tier city. Now I live in a place that puts zero emphasis on public transport to the point where it’s nearly nonexistant and there are so many terrible drivers who have no business behind the wheel. If we could give those folks a viable alternative, we could let them be inattentive on a train or bus where it doesn’t matter one bit and leave the roads open for drivers who care more about what they’re doing. As a bonus, there would be less traffic!