Today I have a story about how the media lied in order to create sensationalism.
Yeah, I know that could be the start to just about any story on the news in the last 50 years, which is its own can of worms. We are going to talk about cars today, though, so put the pitchforks down.
See, we recently did a great video on the Audi S4 and its importance to the world. In it, we mentioned that Audi was in some serious legal trouble during the 80s.
That isn’t the whole story.
Audi Explodes Onto The Market
Let’s start at the beginning.
It’s the seventies. Bell bottoms are all the rage, and the Pinto is a new promising economy car made by Ford. To be honest, I shouldn’t be picking on Ford, the seventies were a rough time for cars. New safety standards and skyrocketing gas prices meant that manufacturers were scrambling to build cars that consumers actually wanted.
Audi, however, had tapped into something that other manufacturers didn’t dare to do; the retired but still want to have fun market. Seriously, watch this commercial for the Quattro system and tell me who it’s for.
It worked. Audi had a reputation of being the poor man’s Mercedes, or a fancy Volkswagen, and it turns out there was a market for exactly that. People who wanted something nice, that had nerd bits to talk about and impress your neighbors with, and that didn’t cost Porsche money. Mostly middle-class suburbanites who were done having fun in sports cars and wanted something to fit their aging lifestyle.
Enter the 5000.
In 1982, Audi released the C3 generation of the 100 and 200 series cars. People in the US hate small numbers though, so we called it the 5000.
It was a super nerdy car. Audi leaned hard into the AWD system, liked to tell people how low the drag coefficient was and shoved a very smooth five-cylinder engine under the hood. Those are all great features to brag about at your neighborhood BBQ.
This isn’t to say that any of that stuff is bad; the 5000 is a very competent car, especially for the time. It’s just that you have to put yourself in the mindset of the type of person buying them. If you wanted a fast driver’s car, you got a Porsche or one of those new Japanese cars that were making waves. If you wanted a standard car, the K car platform was king.
The Audi cost too much to be a normal car, but it wasn’t sporty or luxurious enough to take on BMW. It was bought by suburbanites to show off. Which is why they started dying.
Suburbanites Start Dying
Between 1983 and 1987, 6 people died in accidents involving the Audi 5000. There were more than 700 non-fatal accidents as well. That whipped the media into a frenzy, claiming that the 5000 had a defect causing “unintended acceleration” and was killing people.
Think of the Children!
The truth is far stupider. Like I said above, the people who were buying these cars were not car people, but Audi, in true German fashion, just assumed that they were. The pedals in the 5000 were arranged and styled similarly to sports cars, where the brake pedal is rather small and close to the gas pedal so that you can quickly move from brake to gas.
American drivers in the 80s were used to gigantic Lincolns. You know the type. The brake pedal is four miles wide and three football fields away from the accelerator.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. People were mashing the gas when they thought they were mashing the brakes, and surprise surprise, cars accelerate when you do that.
The media, of course, blamed Audi.
“Out of Control”
In 1986 the show 60 Minutes aired a segment called “Out of Control” where they tried to claim that the Audi 5000 would just magically start accelerating. They interviewed a grieving mother whose Audi had just up and ran over her son for no reason, showed footage of an Audi 5000 suddenly and inexplicably just start driving away all on its own, and had an expert make things up to explain why it was happening.
It was all very dramatic, and very alarming. Audi had basically created a car that kills people.
Too bad it was all bullshit.
The Lying Cheating Media
When people sat gripping their armchairs in panic at the new suburban vehicle menace, what they were watching was a farce. CBS had gotten wind of a story. It was true that people were dying in Audi 5000s, and it was true that some people were trying to sue Audi because of it.
However, when the facts came out, it didn’t make a very good story. So CBS just made up their own.
60 Minutes of LIES
First, they tampered with the car. Using their team of experts, they simply could not get the car to suddenly and magically accelerate. It was as if that wasn’t a problem the car had.
That frustrated the people in charge of the story, so they drilled holes into the transmission and then hid compressed air canisters in the car so it would accelerate without any human input.
When the cameras were on, the “expert driver” flipped a switch and the car magically went from park to drive! And the gas pedal just went down all on its own! Amazing! How unsafe!
And you thought intentionally manufacturing outrage was a Facebook thing.
The 60 Minute story prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which needs a shorter name, to investigate.
Their conclusion, to no one’s surprise, was that people were just mashing the gas when they wanted to mash the brake.
They did find that the idle-stabilization system in the 5000 could sometimes malfunction and cause the car to lurch a little. Those little lurches absolutely could not account for a car accelerating out of control, but they reasoned it may be what scared people enough to stomp on what they thought was the brake.
A Kernal of Truth?
Audi took the NHTSA report and did their own investigation. They took the allegations really seriously, which is what a company should do. People were dying, and that’s not something to ever take lightly.
The only thing they found was that a slight majority of people involved in “runaway Audi” events were below average in height.
It was a weak connection at best, but Audi took it personally. On some level, it was their responsibility to make sure people who bought their cars were made aware that it might be a different experience than they were used to. It shouldn’t be, but that’s the world we live in.
They recalled and modified hundreds of thousands of cars to solve the idle issue, and invented a whole new safety feature that would prevent you from putting the car into drive unless your foot was on the brake. They Americanized their flagship car.
Unfortunately, the damage was done.
Audi wouldn’t recover from the drop in sales until the B5 S4 caused people to re-evaluate the company in the year 2000.
It’s a good thing the media learned their lesson.
Not an Isolated Incident
Hah. That was a joke. The media never learns, and people never want to accept blame for anything.
This kind of back ally, fake journalism about cars didn’t even start with the 5000. It started when Chevrolet built a brilliant little sports car called the Corvair.
“Unsafe at Any Speed”
It was in the 60s when the Corvette was just started to be a real car. Chevy wanted to do something no other American car manufacturer was doing; build a rear-engine sports car. Something light, super maneuverable, and could be a competitor to the legendary Porsches.
So they built the Corvair. The thing is, people in the US didn’t really know how to drive a rear-engine car. You can’t just dive into a corner or pin the throttle leaving the parking lot – you will spin the car around. And oh man did that happen a lot.
The media went nuts, calling the car a menace and blaming Chevy for building a deadly car. There was even a book about it. “Unsafe at Any Speed.” By the end of the Corvairs short life, it was so refined and easy to drive that it could easily have been the next big thing. Just like with Audi, though, the damage was done and no one would buy them.
It’s really no surprise that it happened again in the mid-2000s.
The Prius Turns Deadly
From 2002 to 2009 there were numerous news stories about run-away Priuses. There were dozens of investigations, but as usual, the media made up their own story.
“The Electronic Throttle!” they screamed. That was the issue. It was new and evil and not great and safe like old cable throttles. The panic was real.
The truth, of course, is the same old story. People are dumb, and in numerous instances, simple driver error was the cause.
There were some issues with floormats, where if you drove in a certain way could trap the gas pedal underneath the floormat. That *is* an issue, but it has nothing to do with the ETCS. Even when we acknowledge the floormat issue, it still comes down to lack of driver training as the reason people were crashing. The brakes on the Prius could easily overpower the accelerator – people were simply panicking instead of standing on the brakes.
What Can We Learn?
What’s the takeaway, though? It’s not really fair to say that we should never trust the media. For every Audi story where investigators made up evidence, there are plenty of stories where the truth is actually way worse and investigators simply couldn’t get all the evidence on-screen because there was so much. Anyone familiar with the monster named Andrew Wakefield can attest to that, but let’s stick to cars.
The simple thing we can do is to be skeptical and research things ourselves. You know, use some common sense. That way, when, say, the Tesla Model X gets accused of accelerating on its own, look into it instead of just believing the news. You might just find that “the accelerator (was) being pressed with no pressing of the brake detected.”