Braking news: A history of false facts driving the story

On Nov. 23, 1986, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a 17-minute segment, “Out of Control,” about a rash of reports of a “sudden unintended acceleration” problem with the Audi 5000. It was presented by correspondent Ed Bradley, a man who now stands in the annals of TV journalism as a revered and legendary figure.

Bradley’s piece was a tailor-made fear-inducing example of mainstream media distortion. (In those days, the only media.) Its method was rigged. Its results were demonstrably, blatantly false. It painted a picture of a serious problem where none existed. And it almost ruined Audi.

Fast-forward to the present day and a new “sudden unintended acceleration” problem. The technology of cars has, indeed, changed dramatically since the Bradley’s report. The failure of fly-by-wire technology (the kind that governs most auto throttles today) is well-documented in a variety of contexts. Check out this YouTube clip from June 26, 1988, as a prototype Airbus A-320’s makes a perfect landing and explodes in a forest beyond the runway at the Paris Air Show. The pilot wanted to land on the runway. The computer wouldn’t let him. The computer won.

For a really frightening wake up call, check out Peter Neumann’s Risk Digest, which documents and updates thousands upon thousands of computer “failsafe” failures in every imaginable context—from wrongly amputated limbs, changed test scores, air traffic and street traffic control failures and hacked passwords. You name it, it’s there.

Perhaps, Toyota really does have some phantom acceleration problem. Perhaps it’s hiding something. Perhaps someone should face criminal charges. But I’m a little skeptical. Although technology has changed since Ed Bradley’s “60 Minutes” piece, human nature has remained exactly the same.

It is dangerous and potentially callous to call into question flowing tears and riveting, heartfelt emotional testimony. Most victims and survivors of trauma and crime do not fake it or mistake its cause. They should be granted every consideration. But any experienced homicide detective will also tell you, maybe off the record and quietly, that they always look through the tears of the weeping spouse. I noticed the The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, Feb. 24, that the Lexus owned by witness Rhonda Smith, which surged out of control to 100 mph over several minutes, was resold to a happy buyer who has since put 27,000 trouble-free miles on it.

Ed Bradley didn’t tell you in 1986 when “60 Minutes” filmed a sequence of an Audi 5000 surging out of control, that the acceleration was caused not by some undiagnosed demon, but by a man named William Rosenbluth, an automotive consultant retained by plaintiffs in a suit against Audi. Off camera, Rosenbluth drilled a hole in an Audi transmission and piped fluid into it, causing the desired lurching forward and the “phantom sudden acceleration.”

It was some time after that, that NBC’s “Dateline” got caught staging an explosion of side-saddle gas tanks on a GM pickup truck by using incendiary devices to start the fire, after a side impact collision. The producers were working with crash experts closely aligned with trail lawyers suing GM.