Commentary

With a few easy fixes, auto makers could get rid of unintended-acceleration problems and protect themselves from lawsuits.

They’re not going to get rid of unintended acceleration entirely, because it’s mostly caused by human error.

I know that’s an unpopular view that auto makers, regulators and politicians don’t want to touch. But unless we address it, we’ll never reduce these incidents.

Many suspect “ghosts” in electronic controls are causing unintended acceleration. But after exhaustive tests, no auto maker, not the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., not any of the suppliers that make these systems, no independent laboratories or any academics ever have been able to find them.

And I’m here to tell you they never will find them, because they don’t exist.

We saw the same thing 25 years ago when Audi went through the same unintended-acceleration hysteria. Everyone was positive there was some defect in the cars. But exhaustive testing proved it was simply driver error, or what NHTSA calls pedal misapplication.

I’m not talking about jammed floor mats or sticky pedals. I’m not referring to situations where, on a cold morning, the choke comes on and makes the engine rev higher. I’m not talking about turning the steering wheel to full lock and getting the engine to surge slightly to overcome the resistance.

I’m talking about sudden unintended acceleration, where the driver claims the car roared off at full throttle and could not be brought to a stop despite stomping on the brake pedal.

Pedal misapplication calls for a simple design fix: A bigger gap between the gas and brake pedals.

Today, that gap is 2-in. to 3-in. (5-cm to 8-cm) in most cars. It has to be widened. Research will show how much, especially for those drivers with big feet or wearing winter boots.

The difference in the planes between the two pedals must also be increased. Again, most cars have a 2-in. to 3-in. difference in planes. By increasing that, drivers will know which pedal they’re pressing simply by how much they have to bend their knee.

In addition, all cars need to be fitted with a brake-override system, where the engine drops to idle if it is wide open and the driver applies the brakes. Many cars already have this feature. They all need it.

All cars also need to be fitted with black boxes that capture speed, braking, steering and other data so it is easy to reconstruct what caused a crash. Auto makers need to design these black boxes to identify when the gas pedal is pushed down by the driver.

I don’t mean the signal to the electronic throttle control. I mean recording when the driver physically pushes down on the pedal.

This will give auto makers the proof they need when it is simply human error, or provide drivers with the evidence they need to confirm the car ran out of control on its own.

But I’m confident driver error is at the heart of the problem. It’s an issue that’s been around for decades and one that affects almost all models from all auto makers.

Or, we can keep our heads in the sand and spend years searching for electronic ghosts that don’t exist.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.