People are Dumb: Part 1 – Sticky Accelerator


Corporate Greed, The People Fight Back

At the height of the Toyota sudden acceleration debacle, Consumer Reports – easily one of the most trusted publications in the world – published this advice: “Put your foot on the break firmly and don’t lift off.”

This was, as many probably remember, just under a decade ago when there were several high-profile cases, tragically many ending in death, of Toyota and Lexus drivers losing control of their vehicles as the accelerator wouldn’t let up – sending them into walls, intersections, and down embankments. Toyota, the biggest automaker in the world, fought desperately to save face and cover the problem up. They claimed over and over again that there was no way these problems could be caused by the accelerator itself, and finally, that it was perhaps just a problematic floormat. Nonetheless the NHSTA under Ray LaHood bravely held them to account. In fact, as this Times piece points out:

Executives at Toyota “were dragging things out, and we’d had it,” a senior American transportation official said in recounting new details of the talks. “We were getting excuses that didn’t make sense anymore.”

There were thousands of pages of ink, hearings, and exposés. ABC’s Brian Ross produced a segment actually showing the unintended acceleration on camera. Eventually, after so much press and public outcry and personal admonitions from LaHood, Toyota engaged in the largest automotive recall in history and was forced to pay 1.26 billion dollars, the largest fine ever for an automaker.

Justice was served.

Except, Everything You Just Read was Bullshit

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his excellent Podcast, there was never a problem with Toyota’s accelerators. As the DOT would later confirm, as you can examine in this great Car and Driver piece – it was just… human error. Even the ABC video was completely staged.

Which of course, might be hard to swallow. Here’s a quick bulleted explanation for why it’s… definitively and obviously true:

  • There have been tons of cases since way before the Toyota cases of sticky accelerators.
  • They all match a similar pattern EVEN in the Toyota cases, which is that the drivers were usually new to the car [think valets, loaner cars etc.] and there was NO correlation between models – that is to say, it was just as likely a fancy complex system in a Lexus as it was a simple analog one in a Corolla
  • Brakes beat Engine – and this is an experiment you can but should not do yourself – If you’re in a car and you pretend the accelerator is stuck at full throttle [with your foot on it hard] and you then also put your foot on the brakes – your brakes win. And not just a little. And not after a minute. But immediately. And these were Camrys not Corvettes. Though… it’s also true in a Corvette.
  • Many cars by this time had EDRs – or what you’d call a Black Box. This was a system that recorded every action taken before a crash. And these EDRs confirmed that during virtually all of these accidents, no one was hitting the brakes. See above.

It wasn’t the accelerator. It was the driver.

And there are a great number of psychological reasons that account for this – and in no way to I wish to disparage the victims of this tragic time. In short, there’s a kind of panic-induced mental block that sometimes causes this kind of thing to happen. Actually, as my father can attest, this happened to me when I was 15.

[I didn’t want to learn how to drive stick anyway, Daaad!! I’m taking Mom’s car.]

So everything above – from the think-pieces on the danger of car automation to the billions in fines and recalls, to the general public distrust of the world’s largest automaker – every single one of these things was just… wrong.

Now go back in time and picture LaHood responding to then current news reports about Toyota trying to cover up the scandal – in fact, don’t picture it – it’s… right here:

LaHood says he’s going to get to the bottom of it! In fact, off camera, LaHood publicly recommends that Toyota drivers should consider not driving them until they were fixed.

Here’s what’s incredible about that: By this point, LaHood already had the same information I present above. By this point they already had black boxes. They already knew what any car person knows – brakes beat engine every time. But LaHood and Kucinich and news reports – even years later – stick with this story. This utterly false story. Right now, if you ask your aunt about the sticky accelerator, she’ll likely tell you how about those Toyota deathtraps.

Why it Matters

Let’s go back to where we started. Let’s ignore the fact that every one of those greedy, sleazy corporate bigwigs at Toyota was in fact… in this case… completely right. Because there was no programming error or bad mechanical, there was nothing to cover up. And they apologized knowing that they were apologizing for nothing. Ignore LaHood blatantly and inarguably lying to the American public. Ignore how that lie cost hundreds of millions in one day on the stock market. And just go back to that advice from Consumer Reports:

Put your foot on the break firmly and don’t lift off.

Given what we know, this is bum advice. The thing that caused me to mow down a street sign when I was 15 and tragically costs several lives every year in Toyotas and Kias and Fords everywhere – is that your brain has crossed a signal. It firmly and irrationallybelieves that your foot is in fact already on the correct pedal. But it’s not. So, if you were to keep your foot firmly on the brake you would be exacerbating the problem.


And so I begin my series on rational thought with a provocative but I think crucial understanding: People are dumb. They think they’re smart, they think they should put their foot down on the pedal. But they shouldn’t because what feels right and what seems right have nothing to do with what is right.

The truth is we don’t want to believe it’s on us. No one wants to impugn the dad who killed his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in a loaner Lexus. No one wants to use the phrase That could have been me and then immediately follow that up with And it was not my car’s fault.

But it’s not the complex answer that’s correct. There are millions of lines of code that go into your car’s driving system, and it just seems so right to believe that somewhere in there is the code that LaHood or Kucinich or anyone thought was the culprit.

There’s a quote from Usual Suspects that I think is worth repeating:

To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.

That’s actually the way the world works. People want it to be more complex. They need the problem to be the car and not the driver. People are dumb.

This series will examine what this means for investors, for executives, and for anyone who is trying to solve problems. I’m going to argue that the best answer is always the simple one. That people are irrational but it’s okay. And I’m going to explore what I think is the most important question this brings up. If people are dumb, if I’m dumb, what can be done about it?

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