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Blame Game with Malcolm Gladwell | E8/S1: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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Blame Game with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 8| Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 38 min | Released: August 3, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell: On the morning of August 28, 2009, Mark Saylor set out from his home in Chula Vista, California, just south of San Diego. Saylor was 45 years old, a California highway patrol officer. Ordinarily, he drove a 2006 Lexus IS but his car had a problem with the CD player, so that morning he took it to the dealership and got a loaner, a brand new Lexus ES. Saylor finished his at the highway patrol and went back home, picked up his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law, Chris Lastrella, and they all set out for the daughter’s soccer practice. They were heading up Highway 125 and just as they approach to town called Santi, Estrella who was sitting in the backseat, calls 911. What you’re about to hear, I’m warning you, is harrowing.

911: 911 emergency, what are you reporting?

[Unintelligible talking]

911: I, I’m sorry; your cell phone is cutting off.

Chris Lastrella: We’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck.

911: I’m sorry?

CL: Our accelerator is stuck. We’re on 125 and we can’t break.

911: Okay, north 125. Where are you passing?

CL: We are passing, uh, where are we passing? We’re going 120, Mission Gorge. We’re, we’re in trouble, we can’t, there’s no brakes.

911: Okay and you don’t have the ability to, like, turn the vehicle off or anything?

CL: We’re approaching an intersection. We’re approaching an intersection. Hold on.

911: Okay.

CL: We’re approaching an intersection.

[Screams]

911: Hello?

MG: The “Oh, oh, oh!” you hear is Lestrella’s horrified response to the Lexus spinning out of control, hitting another vehicle and plunging down a ravine. Everyone inside the car was killed.

The Saylor crash is a heartbreaking story. I hesitated before playing it, but in the end, I concluded that you have to hear it to make sense of what happened next. The tape went viral, was played on the nightly news, written up in horrified news articles to a point where a wave of fear swept the country.

Announcer 1: Toyota is slamming the brakes on its sales due to a sticky accelerator that could put drivers’ lives in danger.

Announcer 2: The so called “Runaway Toyotas,” cars taking off on their own, up to 100 miles an hour.

Announcer 3: […] women died. She crashed her Camry into a tree and a pole, the car had sped up to more than 100miles per hour.

MG: Hundreds of people came forwards with horror stories about their Lexus accelerator getting stuck and Toyotas too since Lexus is a brand of Toyota. There were congressional hearings, exposes, whistle blowers, NASA got involved. Toyota would conduct seven recalls between September 2009 and March 2010, totaling millions of vehicles. As many as 90 people were estimated to have died in Toyotas that mysteriously accelerated.

Toyota ended up paying a $1.2 billion fine to the US government. They spent another $1.1 billion to settle a class action lawsuit and since then, they’ve settled something like 400 separate lawsuits. The world’s largest automobile company was accused of a cover up, of putting profits ahead of people, of having a culture of denial.

Eric Holder: Toyota’s conduct was shameful. It showed a blatant disregard for systems and laws designed to look after the safety of consumers.

MG: That’s Eric Holder in March 2014; he was the Attorney General of the United States at the time. It’s a pretty remarkable day when the chief law enforcement officer of the land calls out one of the largest companies in the world.

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You’re listening to Revisionist History, where every week we go back and examine something forgotten or misunderstood. This episode is devoted to the Toyota sudden acceleration scandal. Chances are you’ve heard at least some part of that 911 tape before. Maybe you had a Toyota at the time that had a sudden pang of worry. What I want to do is go back to 2009 and convince you that something went very wrong in the way the controversy played out. Very wrong.

Let’s go back for a moment to the person we started with, Mark Saylor, California highway patrol officer. He’s driving down the highway and he can’t stop his car. “The accelerator is stuck,” his brother-in-law says. After the crash, another person comes forward to the police and says he had driven the same loaner Lexus a few days before and had a similar incident. He’d accelerated to get past a truck and when he pushed the throttle towards the floor, that’s what car guys call the accelerator pedal, the throttle stuck. What he realized, is that someone had put one of those big, thick, all-weather rubber floor mats in the car on top of the floor mat that was already there. That second big, thick floor mat wasn’t attached to those little hooks that hold floor mats down, it slid around and so somehow the thick mat got wedged under the throttle. That, everyone decides, is what happened to Saylor. Maybe he tried to turn the car off, but the Lexus has one of those push button ignitions and what he may not have realized is that you have to hold that button down for three seconds if you’re trying to stop the car while it’s in motion. Maybe he tried to put the car in neutral, but it’s not always obvious how to do that, particularly if you’re panicking. They crash, the 911 call goes viral, and Toyota launches a massive recall of floor mats across its model line. Problem solved, right? Well, no. Here’s the problem. Nobody who’s ever studied the sudden acceleration crisis thinks the floor mats are any more than a small part of the story. It just doesn’t make sense.

Jacob Smith: So that’s an all-weather mat.

MG: That’s my producer, Jacob Smith, talking to Sean Kane.

Sean Kane: This is the killer floor mat, okay. This is the floor mat that brought Toyota to fame.

MG: Kane runs a consulting firm in Massachusetts called Safety Research and Strategies. Whenever controversy around unintended acceleration surfaces, Sean Kane’s name comes up. He’s testified before Congress, he’s worked closely with many the lawsuits against Toyota and he’s not buying the floor mat theory.

SK: When the pedal was depressed fully to the floor, okay, the way this road here, the pedal extended down to the point where the bottom edge of it would catch here, on this rubber piece, okay. And it would catch on the bottom edge and it wouldn’t return.

MG: But Kane doesn’t believe the floor mats tell the whole story.

SK: Floor mats don’t reach up and grab pedals, so the way this was, have to happen is you’d have to depress your accelerator pedal nearly to the floor or all the way to the floor…

MG: To wide open throttle.

SK: To wide open throttle, you’d have to mash that accelerator to the floor and, to have that catch.

MG: Wide open throttle is another term for flooring it. Kane is saying that for the for the floor mat to trap the accelerator, the driver has to floor it. But why on earth, is a guy driving his family to soccer practice flooring it? Not to mention all the hundreds of other people who complained about Toyotas with stuck accelerators. Some of those complaints come from elderly ladies, your grandmother basically. Since when does your grandmother floor it when she’s driving her Camry down the street? As for Mark Saylor, he was driving with what he thought was a stuck accelerator for a while. Why didn’t he just reach down and yanked the floor mat away from the pedal, right?

SK: I still have a hard time believing, giving the long distance and the travel of this car, that the floor mat was the culprit.

MG: Kane thinks that something else must’ve happened in that car. And by the way, the Toyota sudden acceleration crisis ended up involving hundreds of cases and in the overwhelming number of those cases, the car didn’t even have an oversized, thick, plastic floor mat; the cars had normal floor mats. Something else must’ve been happening and a number of people believe that “something” has to do with software, that there is and was something wrong with the software that governs the throttle in Toyotas.

SK: In today’s cars, now we’re looking at code line, you know, code that can, can be up to 100 million lines of code. The F-35 joint strike fighter is running about 7 million lines of code. A luxury car today can run 100 million lines of code. You gotta, what, half a billion dollar aircraft? You got a $50,000 car and the complexity level of the $50,000 car is exponentially greater. Do you think that car is gonna, now, gonna be defect free and software clear? Not likely.

MG: This is the argument that Kane has made in lawsuits against Toyota. The cars contain a bug in the lines of computer code that control how the car starts and stops, speeds up and slows down. The LA Times also pursued this question, resulting in one of the most prestigious investigative reporting awards in the country, the Loeb, for its work. If the LA Times and Sean Kane are right, then that’s terrifying. Because what it means, is that what happened to Mark Saylor could happen to you.

I wanted to put this fear to a test, that what happened to Mark Saylor could easily happen to you or me. It’s a terrible story after all, but how much should we be afraid that our cars might do the same thing? To test this out, my producer Jacob and I got ourselves a 2003 Camry, 225,000 miles on it, the bestselling Toyota. In fact, the bestselling car in America for 11 of the last 12 years. A lot of the unintended acceleration cases happened in Camrys. After getting the car, we called up Car and Driver, the premier automotive magazine in the United States. We wanted them to help us figure out what was behind this epidemic of unintended acceleration, to try and replicate one of those runaway car situations.

So one chilly winter morning, Jacob and I met up with 3 guys from Car and Driver at Chrysler’s proving grounds, just west of Detroit. It’s a vast racetrack that Chrysler uses to do all of its testing. I’m guessing 1,000 acres, big guard house in the front. The whole time we were there, Chrysler had someone in a Jeep Cherokee keeping an eye on us, making sure we didn’t take photos of any of the new cars they were testing.

MG: Oh, look here’s the Q7. Those, those are the Car and Driver guys right there.

MG: Our guide is Don Sherman; he’s the technical director of Car and Driver, and KC Colwell, young guy, works with Don. Eddie Alterman also came; he’s the editor of Car and Driver.

MG: Oh, that’s our Camry.

Don, KC, Eddy, they’re all car guys, which matters because one of the notable facts about sudden acceleration is how the car guys see things differently from the non-car guys. Incidentally, Jacob and I would also describe ourselves as car guys, although not quite at the level of the Car and Driver folks.

True story, when I was 13, I wrote away for promotional brochures on every car sold in the world except with the Soviet ZiL, which was really hard to get. I still have every one of those brochures. Anyway, back to the race track in Detroit.

KC Colwell: Silver Camry entering VDF, staying out of your way like we were before.

MG: The plan is to take the Camry up to some serious speeds, keep the throttle wide open as if the accelerator pedal is somehow stuck and then see if we can stop the car. What happens if you have your foot full on the accelerator pedal and then you also slam on the brakes at the same time? Because intuitively you’d think, that’s what must happen inside the acceleration. Your car surges uncontrollably, you slam on the brakes. We wanna figure out what that looks like.

Eddie Alterman: You’re gonna make it go wide open throttle, then quickly you apply the brakes. Not really a panic, but just stop it the best you can.

MG: So Jacob goes out first, with KC behind the wheel. He accelerates.

JS: So bringing it back up 61, 62, 62, 65, 67, 68, 69, 70 and…

KC: We’re about to do it.

JS: All right, we’re gonna put the throttle down.

MG: So the gas pedal is floored. And now, KC hits the brake with the gas pedal still down.

[Brake noise]

JS: And we locked up a little bit but, but the car stops.

KC: Oh, yeah. The car definitely stops.

JS: The car stops.

MG: But no loud noises, no smoke billowing out the back. Jacob asks KC about the brakes, “What kind of shape are they in?”

JS: Is it a little cooked or?

KC: No. It, it’s, I don’t think the brakes are cooked. I don’t really smell anything. We’ll know in a second. Don’t even smell that.

JS: Okay. If you have functioning brakes, the brakes win. Brakes versus engine, the brakes win.

MG: Then it’s my turn. I get in the Camry with Eddie Alterman, he’s driving. We take the car down the straightaway.

MG: Can we go a little faster than 60?

EA: Yeah, let me get past the… Okay, we’re at 70.

MG: Alterman hits the brakes firmly, smoothly, easily. We come to a halt.

EA: Throttle is open.

[Car engine sound]

MG: Wait, we’ve got a really old, not in terribly good shape car, filled with 3 people and a bunch of equipment and it’s still stopping. So, what’s the, what is the difference between breaking with your foot completely off the accelerator and breaking like this?

MG: What I mean is, how much longer does it take to stop a car with the throttle wide open?

EA: About 10 feet, if you want to quantify it. It can be a little bit more, but not so much that you’d notice.

MG: Back in 2009, Alterman had Car and Driver do a version of this very same test.

EA: We basically did this with a variety of cars and we found, actually, that with the throttle stuck open, we’re going at 70 miles an hour, the Camry stopped pretty close to the same distance as a Ford Taurus that had its throttle closed.

MG: A Camry with the accelerator stuck wide open stops, basically, as quickly as a Taurus breaking normally.

EA: So it’s not a, not a big deal.

MG: Yeah.

EA: But of course, we’re not panicking.

MG: Yeah.

EA: We’re not under the impression that the car is possessed by demons.

MG: Ha-ha! Yes.

EA: And, uh, we’re in a close kind of situation, but you can see… I’ll get it up to 70.

[Car engine sound]

EA: Not a big deal.

MG: Yeah. It’s the most undramatic…

EA: You want to try it?

MG: I would love to try it, yeah.

MG: We were out on the testing ground for two hours. We tried every trick in the book. The car stopped. We loaded up the Camry with three adults and a ton of equipment, it stopped. We turned off the engine while the car was in motion, it stopped. Once we took the Camry up to 100miles an hour.

[Car engine sound]

MG: What are we at? 90… Getting there.

MG: It took forever but it stopped.

[Car brakes suddenly]

MG: Afterwards, Don Sherman and I talked about the strangely normal experience of bringing the Camry to a full stop with the accelerator to the floor.

EA: The brakes are powerful. You got four wheels working and it’s fairly easy for them. Think of the poor engine that has to convert gasoline to, to power and move all that. Uh, braking is relative easy to do it, uh, much more powerful.

MG: Yeah.

EA: That’s what people don’t acknowledge that all the capability built in their car.

MG: When Car and Driver did their version of this experiment, right after the Saylor crash, they went so far as to do a full throttle braking test on a Roush Stage 3 Mustang.

If you aren’t a car guy, I should explain. Roush is an independent company that take sports cars and basically puts them on steroids. The engine of the Stage 3 Roush has 540 horsepower, that’s 2 to 3 times more powerful than the typical car on the road, a monster. A Roush would take a Camry and chop it into little, tiny pieces. So Car and Driver take the Roush Mustang up to 100 miles an hour, keep their foot on the accelerator. At the same, time they slam on the brakes. And what happens? The car stops. Now, it takes a good 900 feet to come to a full stop, there’s all kinds of huffing and puffing, but it stops. Brakes go up against one of the most powerful engines on the road and the brakes win.

I think you can now understand how crucial this point is. Toyota gets embroiled in a massive controversy. They pay billions of dollars in fines; they face allegations of a cover up all because their cars are supposed to be suddenly and mysteriously accelerating. But if your car is suddenly and mysteriously accelerating, all you have to do is step on the brakes because brakes beat engines. So why couldn’t Mark Saylor stop his Lexus that day, as he sped down Highway 125? I know it sounds ridiculous and tragic, but it’s the only logical explanation: because he never put his foot on the brake.

Maybe the most important person in this whole story is a man named Dick Schmidt. Sadly, Schmidt died last fall, which is a real loss because Schmidt was a really remarkable man. As a kid, he was a champion gymnast, later a champion sailor, a sub 3 hour marathoner. He owned 5 Porsches. He raced cars, a car guy. He was also a professor at UCLA, who becomes an important figure in what’s called Human Performance Research. Human Performance Research asks how do people move and act and interact with the physical world. Schmidt starts the Journal of Motor Behavior and along the way, he becomes maybe the world’s leading expert on the way your feet behave when you drive a car. I talked to Schmidt about a year before he died. He was in a wheelchair by that point. He had a neurological disease, and you’ll hear a little bit of his illness in his speech. I’m gonna have to repeat what he says because it’s really important and I want to make sure you understand it.

Schmidt got involved in the sudden acceleration issue years ago when he got a call from an attorney in Washington DC. It was a case involving a taxi driver who picked up some people outside a hotel.

Dick Schmidt: Next thing you know I’d he’s running full throttle down the parkway, the other guy was.

MG: What Schmidt’s saying is, “Next thing you know, he’s running full throttle down the street and he makes a left turn and realizes, ‘Oh God, I’m coming to a big traffic circle.’ And he ends up putting the car into a wall.”

DS: He puts the car into a wall.

MG: That was 1994, years before the Toyota scandal. But it’s exactly the same scenario. A car takes off mysteriously, the driver can’t stop it.

MG: Was there ever a moment where you suspected there might be a mechanical cause to these incidents?

DS: No.

MG: What I’m asking is if Schmidt ever suspected that the problem might be with the car, a malfunction, a faulty bit of software, an engineering failure. And Schmidt, one of the world’s leading experts in human factors, is saying that never once crossed his mind. Why? Because everything about sudden acceleration looked like a problem with the driver; not the car.

He starts to look at other cases and discovers that there are some pretty clear patterns, but those patterns don’t involve a particular make or model of car, nothing that could make you say, “Oh there’s something wrong with that kind of car.” Every car maker gets hit with complaints of sudden acceleration. When there’s a high profile case like the Saylor crash, people get focused on one brand, like Toyota, but that’s just the effect of publicity; it happens to everyone.

The patterns involve the kinds of people who have sudden acceleration incidents and the kinds of circumstances that lead to sudden acceleration incidents. The drivers tend to be older, they tend to be shorter, they tend to be people, and this is really important, they tend to be people who are driving an unfamiliar car, so, for instance, parking lot attendants. And the vast majority of these incidents happen right after someone gets into a car for the first time or when they’re parking or driving at very low speeds.

Now, you have to make sense of these patterns. You could argue, I mean, against all reason, but you could argue that cars just get really upset and misbehave when they’re being driven by parking lot attendants, but that’s ridiculous. The patterns Schmidt found mean it’s not the car. What Schmidt concludes is that people are getting into strange cars and maybe because those people are too short and didn’t adjust the seat properly, they were a little further away from the pedal than usual. Or maybe they’re trying to park, and because they’re doing the stopping and starting of getting in and out of a parking space, they get thrown just a little out of their comfort zone, they start making stabbing motions with their right foot, like someone groping in the dark. The term Dick Schmidt uses to describe this is “Impulse Variability.” Your brain requests a very specific action, but your body fails to deliver exactly what it’s told to do.

MG: You mean to say that, even when producing a very familiar physical movement…

DS: Yeah.

MG: There’s variability in how I move my limbs and the force with which I move my limbs?

DS: Absolutely, yeah.

MG: So a baseball player swinging a bat at a fastball may feel like he’s reproducing his swing every time but he’s not?

DS: Right.

MG: That’s why even the greatest golfers in the world sometimes hit the ball in the rough or the best basketball players in the world miss a free throw.

DS: I don’t think the driver is confused […]

MG: Schmidt says, “I don’t think the driver is confused. If you ask him which is the brake pedal and which is the accelerator pedal, he knows. But he gets in this state where he feels like he’s acting normally and he’s not.” In other words, somewhere between intention and action, there’s a garble, a glitch. And what happens? The driver puts his foot on the accelerator thinking it’s the brake, he wants to stop the car but, in fact, he’s speeding it up.

More in a moment, after this break.

Now back to our story.

So, back to floor mats. Why do they sometimes get implicated in sudden acceleration? Because they throw off the expected geometry of the car. A big, thick, winter mat stacked on top of an existing mat raises the floor of the footwall, makes the accelerator and brake seem much closer to your right foot and, if you’re in a strange car, that just increases the odds of impulsive variability. It’s one of those little things that leads to a garble between intention and action.

Once you understand Dick Schmidt, you realize there are all kinds of scenarios that could explain what happened to Mark Saylor. Let me give you one. He’s driving down the highway with the cruise control on. Both of his feet are on the floor mat. He comes up behind a car going slower than he is, so he puts his right foot back on the accelerator, hard. But as he does that, the floor mat slides under the throttle locking it open. Now comes the crucial part. He takes his foot off the accelerator to return to his cruise control speed, but the car doesn’t slow down, it surges forward. The throttle is locked open by the floor mat. He’s alarmed, he picks his foot up to hit the brake, but it’s a car he’s not familiar with, it’s a loaner, and he puts his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake. And he presses it down expecting the car to slow, but it doesn’t. That’s why Lastrella says, “The brakes don’t work.” And Saylor freaks out so he presses down harder and the car goes even faster and he freaks out even more. I think it’s important to note here that Saylor isn’t negligent, he’s not at fault, he’s not speeding or running a red light or drunk, he’s making a mistake that almost any of us could make under the circumstances. What happened to him in that moment is confusion.

So they’re going into a kind of panic state, where instead of asking the question, “Is my foot on the right pedal?” they think the problem is they’re pushing the brake hard enough.

DS: Yeah. So there, the perception is that the brakes failed. His pedal goes to the floor and the car doesn’t stop.

MG: Schmidt says, “The perception is that the brakes have failed, because the pedal goes to the floor and the car doesn’t stop.” Dick Schmidt isn’t proposing some kind of farfetched theory here. In February 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its report on the whole Toyota business, that’s the one NASA got involved in, and they basically agreed with Schmidt. They concluded that the overwhelming number of sudden acceleration cases were clearly pedal error. The agency knows this because every car has a black box that records when the brake and when the accelerator are used. Time and again in these cases, the black boxes showed that the brakes hadn’t even been touched.

So here’s my question, why is it so hard for people to accept the fact that there is a really simple, straightforward explanation for what happened in the sudden acceleration cases? Because it was hard. Right after the Saylor case, the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, went before Congress and said…

Ray LaHood: My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to the Toyota dealer cause they believe they have the fix for it.

MG: Do you realize how insane that is? This is the guy in charge of American auto safety and he is completely deluded about the cause of the problem. He wants to blame the car. Some reporters do exactly the same thing.

Unknown: They have said there’s absolutely no electronic problem in these cars again and again.

Unknown: What we’ve established with, with this type of …

MG: In February of 2010, Brian Ross, at ABC news, does a story on a runaway Avalon. It’s about how the software in Toyotas causes them to accelerate uncontrollably.

Unknown: Wow! It’s like that, huh?

MG: But of course, all you have to do, if a Toyota accelerates uncontrollably, is use the brakes. So ABC rigs up an Avalon and, essentially, stages an episode of unintended acceleration.

Host: The brakes don’t work, the brakes give out. Jeez.

MG: The fakery was later uncovered by the website Jalopnik. Here is the editor of Jalopnik, Patrick George.

Patrick George: They got a university professor to cut three wires within the electronic throttle control system, then connected two of the wires to each other in a specific pattern and with a specific resistor to create a link between two final wires with a switch in between so that he could control it. In other words, he, he, does, this car was rigged. It was rigged in a way that it would never produce these results in real life.

MG: At the same time, they fake a video or, if you ask ABC, “they make an editing error,” that makes it look like the car’s engine is revving dramatically.

In fact, the car is in park. In the video, you can actually see that the brake light is on the whole time. They go to all of this trouble of splicing wires and revving engines, all that, because they’re trying to avoid the simplest and most plausible explanation which is, people are hitting the wrong pedal. Crazy. It gets worse.

At the height of the Toyota controversy, Consumer Reports releases a video telling drivers what to do in the case of unintended acceleration. So, this is one of the most trusted and reputable brands in the United States. Millions of people look to Consumer Reports for objective advice. Here’s what their head of automotive testing, Jake Fisher, has to say.

Jake Fisher: A car accelerating out of control is a very serious and scary situation for anyone. A gas pedal could get stuck because of a malfunction, because of a broken throttle return spring, or even a jammed floor mat. Fortunately, if you remain calm and follow a few steps, you can easily avoid tragedy.

MG: Wait, stop right there. He lists a series of reasons why a car might accelerate out of control and he neglects to mention the number one cause, which is that a driver has his foot on the wrong pedal. Okay, on to the next problem.

JF: Here, at our track, we’re gonna demonstrate to you what you should do and more importantly, what you shouldn’t do if you’re ever in this unfortunate situation. If you find that your car is accelerating hard, even after you take your foot off the gas pedal, your first instinct’s probably the right one. Step one, put your foot on the brake firmly and don’t lift off. It’s extremely important not lift your foot off the brake.

MG: Wait, wait, wait, this is even crazier than an ABC repo