MAY 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBER 5
T H E C A S E A G A I N S T C O R P O R A T E C R I M E
Audi: Shifting the Blame
by Thomas Wathen
The Audi 5000 had all the earmarkings of an automotive success story. First introduced by Audi in 1978, the car was the flagship model for Audi's American distributor, Volkswagen of America.
U.S. sales, which started strong in 1978 more than doubled by 1985. But with the increase in Audi 5000 sales came the increase in consumer complaints of an unexpected sudden acceleration. Without notice, Audi 5000 drivers complained, the car would accelerate - often with devastating results:
Since the late 1970s hundreds of Audi drivers in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe have reported sudden acceleration problems with the Audi 5000 series or its foreign equivalent. There have been 1500 sudden acceleration accidents reported in Audi 5000s and more than 400 people have been injured when their Audi 5000s sped out of control in the United States. Seven people have died.
The accidents have been strikingly similar. The car idles normally in the "park" position, but when the automatic transmission is shifted into "drive" or "reverse," the car suddenly accelerates without warning. Drivers try braking, but the car fails to stop before hitting cars, trees, walls or people.
Despite the growing number of accidents blamed on the Audi's sudden acceleration, Audi AG - the West German affiliate of Volkswagen that makes the Audi 5000 - has steadfastly denied that the car is defective. Instead, Audi has consistently blamed the cars' drivers for the mishaps.
But despite the company's claims, as accident reports have climbed, sales for the Audi 5000 have plummeted in the last year largely due to the U.S. consumers who have waged an unprecedented fight against the giant West German automaker. So effective have consumers been at publicizing the car's alleged defects and the company's lack of response, that other foreign and domestic automobile manufacturers now worry that Audi's sudden acceleration problem will focus attention on what many perceive to be an industry-wide phenomenon.
What singles out the Audi sudden acceleration problem, however, is the sheer number of accidents reported in the 19781987 Audi 5000 cars. The Audi 5000's sudden acceleration occurs more frequently than any auto defect ever investigated by the U.S. government. By 1987, one out of every 170 Audi 5000s had had a sudden acceleration accident, according to the Center For Auto Safety (CAS), a national consumer organization. By comparison, the infamous Firestone 500 tires were recalled with an accident rate of 1-in15,000.
"Until these vehicles are recalled, Audi 5000 owners take their five's in their hands when they shift from park to drive or reverse," said Clarence Ditlow, CAS's executive director.
The Art of Engineering
The Audi 5000 series, which retails for $23,000, was designed to compete with the Volvo, BMW, Cadillac and other luxury cars. Marketed under the slogan, "Audi - The Art of Engineering," Audi 5000 sales rose signficantly after the car was redesigned in 1984.
And it received high acclaim from industry trade publications. "Audi's 5000 sedan has been a benchmark in its class for several years," noted the AAA newsletter last year. Car and Driver Magazine repeatedly put the Audi 5000 on its annual top 10 list of cars.
The car did particularly well in the lucrative New York Metropolitan area and sales were expanding to other major urban markets as well. Today, there are an estimated quarter of a million Audi 5000 cars on the road in the United States.
But by early 1982, 107 consumers had complained to Audi about a sudden acceleration accident. And when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from auto defects, looked into the accidents, Audi conducted the first of five recalls to diffuse the problem.
Fixing The Driver
Although Audi said it could find nothing wrong with the cars themselves, it theorized to NHTSA that a floor mat stuck underneath the accelerator pedal could cause the accelerator to stick while decelerating. To remedy this, Audi proposed installing a plastic device to keep the pedal clear of the floormat. In April, 1982, NHTSA agreed and all 1978 to 1982 cars were recalled.
"Usually a manufacturer recalls a car to fix a defect they found in the car," Dan Howell of CAS said. "But in 1982, Audi did a recall that was aimed at fixing the drivers. By installing a floor mat device Audi could give the appearance of fixing the car to the government, but deny there was any mechanical problem with the cars."
Later, when CAS reported receiving accident reports on the Audi 5000, despite the floor mat recall, NHTSA once again put pressure on Audi to take action. And again Audi argued that the problem was caused by the driver and not the car. This time Audi said drivers unfamiliar with the car may have been unknowingly stepping on both the brake and the accelerator pedal when they applied the brake.
In late 1983 Audi initiated a second recall of the car. This time the company installed a plate to elevate the brake pedal above the accelerator pedal to make it more difficult for a person to step on the two pedals at once without realizing it. The device was installed on all 1978 through 1983 cars and incorporated into the later models.
Audi Victims Network
Despite the floor mat and the staggered pedals, however, Audi sudden acceleration accidents continued. In January of 1984, Alice Weinstein prepared to back out of her driveway by shifting her Audi 5000 transmission from park into reverse. When she did, the car sped into a snowbank.
When she took the car to her New York dealer, the dealer told her that nothing was wrong with the car and that she must have unwittingly stepped on the gas. Despite some misgivings, Weinstein accepted the explanation and kept driving the car.
Almost a year later Weinstein got into her car with her teen-aged daughter. She shifted the car from park to drive, and the car suddenly accelerated again. This time the car shot forward across the lawn and hit a tree, sending Alice Weinstein and her daughter into the windshield.
Lying in her hospital bed a day later, a friend brought her the names of five other people who had had similar accidents. "Shock turned into outrage, and at that moment I decided to do something," Weinstein said.
Weinstein began collecting the names of Audi drivers who had had sudden acceleration accidents - one of the names she got was Marion Weisfelner's. Together, they created a network of 30 Audi victims.
With the assistance of Dan Howell at the Center For Auto Safety, Weinstein and the other New York area victims were put in touch with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), New York's largest consumer organization.
NYPIRG contacted the New York Attorney General, Robert Abrams, and on March 19th, CAS, NYPIRG, Abrams, Alice Weinstein and other victims announced at a press conference that they were petitioning NHTSA to investigate and recall the car.
"The very high rate of reported runaway Audis contradicts the manufacturer's shameless efforts to blame these incidents on the drivers," Abrams said at the news conference. "There is obviously something very wrong with this car, and, because of the large number of New Yorkers involved, we are joining in the effort to get the responsible federal agency to do something about it."
Emboldened by the news conference, the New York area victims worked with NYPIRG to form their own organization - the Audi Victims Network. Two months later the network had 100 members, and Audi officials were concerned enough about the group's influence that when they were asked to meet with the network in Plainview, New York, they accepted.
When the three executives of Volkswagen of America arrived at the Plainview Jewish Community Center on May 28th, they walked into a public relations nightmare. Dozens of people were filling out accident reports and taking stacks of flyers that dubbed the car a "runaway Audi." In all, over a hundred owners and victims gathered to confront the company.
"This is not an easy meeting for us," said Phil Hutchinson, vice president of Volkswagen of America, in opening the meeting.
Bob Cameron, manager of product liaison, then reported the results of Audi's investigation into 93 cars that had had a sudden acceleration accident.
"Coming from the technical analysis, we have been unable to find any shortcomings with the car," Cameron said. But, he said, there were common traits shared by all the sudden acceleration accident victims: the driver's were inexperienced with Audi 5000s, most did not own the car, most instances occurred below 6,000 miles and "most of the drivers were smaller than average, below five foot five inches."
"Now, what does all this mean?" Tom McDonald, Audi Director of Public Affairs, asked the audience rhetorically. "Basically, it means what we have said in the past. We affirm that we can not find any technical problem with the vehicle or any of the systems within the vehicle. It leaves us to believe that owners may inadvertently or drivers may inadvertently depress the accelerator pedal when they wish to press the brake pedal," McDonald answered.
McDonald then went on to announce that Audi would conduct its third recall, "because of this inadvertent application of the gas pedal rather than the brake pedal." In the recall, McDonald said, Audi would readjust the accelerator pedal and brake pedal to "provide more foot room and thereby reduce the possibility of the misapplication of the pedals." He said that Audi would also provide free audio cassettes to Audi drivers "to re-acquaint drivers with proper seating position and driver controls."
Members of the Audi Victims Network were outraged at the company's presentation. "I can't believe how stupid you must think we all are," Richard Weinstein, Alice Weinstein's husband, told the Audi executives, "trying to tell us that we are the problem."
NYPIRG surveyed over 200 drivers that experienced sudden acceleration problems and found many of the company's claims unfounded.
"The survey showed that these drivers looked pretty normal," said Dr. Hugh Caffey, a bio-statistician who helped on the survey. "If anything stood out about them, it was that they tended to be familiar with the car, had driven many years and were in the safest driving ages."
The NYPIRG survey also showed that the average height for men and women who had experienced Audi's sudden acceleration were, on average, a full inch above the national height average reported by the National Center For Health Statistics.
And 85 percent of the drivers reported having their foot on the brake at the onset of acceleration. Most of those who did not, had the car suddenly accelerate while driving. Less than 10 percent of the people said the brakes eventually stopped the car.
Automatic Shift Lock Device
Television reports of the Plainview meeting, coupled with continuing pressure from the victims network, caused sales to drop even further in the summer of 1986. So fast was word spreading on the Audi 5000 in New York City, that parking garages began posting signs refusing to park Audi 5000 cars.
Audi never initiated the third recall. Instead it announced in July 1986, a fourth recall that it said would stop most of the sudden acceleration problems once and for all.
Audi touted what they called an "automatic shift lock device" as the solution. Although the name implies that a modification is being made to the automatic transmission, the device merely connects a sensor to the brake lights so that drivers must touch the brake pedal before moving the gear shift out of the park position. The Audi Victims Network says the device will not address the accidents documented by their group.
To promote the shift lock device, Audi took out television advertisements in the New York City media market. The ads featured a man identified as head of the "Citizens For Safer Highways," sitting in an office with the nation's capital in the background. He discussed sudden acceleration as an industry-wide problem and claimed that only Audi was doing something to solve the problem - installing the automatic shift lock device. He ended by thanking the company.
But the advertisements backfired. In an expose, television consumer reporter Betty Furness, of WNBC-TV in New York, reported that Citizens For Safer Highways was a one man organization and that the man was being paid by Audi. The ads were quickly pulled and the automatic shift lock device was temporarily discredited.
Even the auto industry's leading newspaper, Automotive News, sharply criticized Audi's response to the problem. "Audi needs to convince the public it has solved the deadly sudden acceleration problem. It needs to present an explanation that makes sense and can be believed. And it hasn't done so," the News wrote in December, 1986.
NHTSA and Audi
In August 1986, NHTSA upgraded the Audi 5000 case to a formal "defect investigation" - the highest priority the agency has for an investigation. And a special segment of "60 Minutes" coupled with pressure from Congress, spurred NHTSA to act quickly.
In December, 1986 NHTSA announced that it would request Audi to voluntarily recall its 5000 series cars. The Audi 5000 had become the most publicized auto defect since the Ford Pinto and the General Motors Corvair. But in its recall, NHTSA merely asked Audi to install the shift lock device and change idle stabilizer valves, two things the company was already doing. And even Audi maintained that while a faulty idle stabilizer valve may cause irregular idle, it could not induce sudden acceleration.
"NHTSA gave Audi a Christmas gift," said Howell of CAS. "They said go ahead and do what you are doing, but do it under the auspices of a safety recall."
Audi eagerly accepted the rehabilitation of the shift lock device as a credible answer to sudden acceleration and attempted to rehabilitate its image. The company modified its public relations line by saying Audi was no longer blaming the drivers for the problem and that the new device would correct the problem with the car.
"We started saying it was driver error," Audi General Sales Manager James G. Wolter told reporters on his publicity tour. "If there is anything we wish we could recall, it's the statement 'driver error.' The intent was not to blame the drivers. The intent was to say that we can't find anything wrong with the car. To come to our own logical conclusion that it was driver error was a mistake."
NHTSA's support of Audi's shiftlock solution followed almost five years of failure by the agency to properly investigate the Audi 5000, Howell said.
NHTSA files reveal that on April 14, 1982, Audi provided the agency with information showing that the accident rate for the Audi 5000 sudden acceleration defect were already 1 in 900, one of the highest on record. The information also alluded to problems in the cruise control systems and in the transmission.
Instead of following up these leads, the agency accepted a suggestion by Audi management that a floor mat interfering with the pedals was causing the sudden acceleration, and it stopped its investigation into the car. So poor was NHTSA's investigation, that even though the agency formally requested copies of all the accident reports, a request with which an auto company must comply, Audi did not provide the complaints and NHTSA officials did not take any follow-up action to obtain them.
Without the 107 complaints, NHTSA could not verify the conclusions Audi was presenting. And NHTSA accepted Audi's floor mat explanation even though it had information showing that Audi had only inspected a small percentage of the reported cars and even though the company had failed to provide proof that floor mats were responsible for the sudden acceleration accidents.
Throughout its investigations NHTSA failed to ask basic questions that could lead to an explanation of these accidents. NHTSA waited three months after they announced their full defect investigation in August 1986 before asking the company for the full list of accident reports.
NHTSA also knew, even before they endorsed the shift lock device on December 23, 1986, that drivers who had the device installed in their cars were reporting accidents. In a letter to Diane Steed, CAS's Clarence Ditlow wrote on January 30, 1987, "Less than two months after those installations began, and before you asked Audi to install the devices as part of a safety recall, the Center For Auto Safety warned that the devices were not working. Three accidents had already occurred in shift-lock equipped Audis - an accident rate that was higher than on Audis without the device."
So far, of the small number of cars which do have the shift-lock device, nearly 40 accidents have been reported, according to CAS. "Steed not only knew in advance that the shift lock was not working," said Howell, but "she had good reason to know that such a device could never work. The shift lock flies in the face of the facts of virtually every runaway Audi accident ever reported to NHTSA. In those cases, drivers consistently report that their foot was not on the accelerator when they shifted from park to drive or reverse - yet the car still accelerated uncontrollably," Howell said.
The Audi Outlook
Despite Audi's shift-lock recall and new public relations approach, sales for February, 1987 were down 56 percent from the year before for the 5000 series and down 58 percent for Audi cars overall.
In April, Audi took two new steps to bolster its declining image. First, the company sent certificates worth $5000 off the purchase of any new 1987 Audi to owners of 1984 to 1986 cars.
"What we're trying to do is show our loyal owner base that we're absolutely committed to the American market," an Audi spokesperson told Automotive News.
Resale values have dropped drastically for Audi 5000 owners. Owners with 1986 cars find their cars are only getting $11,000, a 50 percent depreciation in one year. The 1984 cars are only getting $2,000 on trade-ins and older cars are virtually untradable.
Audi also announced that they were discontinuing the Audi 5000 name and starting in 1988, the car would be known as the Audi 100, a name the car started under in Europe.
But Weinstein, of the Audi Victims Network, says cosmetic changes aren't the answer. "Audi can't hide from this problem or try to buy off the consumers," Weinstein said. "People know that this is a bad car and nobody is going to buy it until the company finds the problem and fixes it." p
Thomas A. Wathen is Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and has worked extensively on auto safety issues.