Audi Sudden Acceleration

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

In 1982 and 1983, Volkswagen of America (VWoA) twice recalled 1978-83 Audi 5000 cars with automatic transmissions in the U.S. and Canada in response to reports of sudden acceleration after shifts out of park accompanied by inability of brakes to stop the vehicle. A third recall covering 1978-86 models, first announced by VWoA in August 1986 as a service action for 1984-86 models and then as a safety recall in January 1987 for all 1978-86 models (87V-008), attempted to fix the sudden acceleration problem by installing a transmission interlock. Neither of the first two recalls fixed a mechanical problem; the first (82V-037) addressed  floor mat interference with the accelerator, while the second (83V-095) concerned the possibility that drivers might accidentally hit the accelerator pedal while braking. VWoA said in 1983 that it knew of 264 accidents, including 48 injuries, from inadvertent acceleration in 1978-83 5000’s.

Since 1983, hundreds of new accidents have occurred involving either 1984-86 Audi 5000 cars or 1978-83 models already recalled. In all, nearly 700 Audi 5000 sudden acceleration accidents have been reported, meaning that nearly 1 out of 500 Audi 5000 automatics has already had a runaway accident. At least 6 people have been killed in Audi sudden acceleration accidents.

In 1985, responding to a request from the Center, DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wrote VWoA about sudden acceleration accidents in 1984-85 Audi 5000s. VWoA wrote NHTSA on January 14, 1986, that it had received nearly 70 accident reports on those models alone, which it blamed on driver error. However, the Center said despite VWoA’s official position, the company has on numerous occasions replaced damaged runaway Audis with new cars or paid for property damage.

New York Attorney General Robert Abrams and the Center for Auto Safety on March 19, 1986, petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation to recall 300,000 1978-86 Audi 5000 cars which suddenly accelerate after shifts out of “Park.” Joining in the petition were the New York Public Interest Research Group and a group of Audi accident victims in the New York City area, where half the reported runaway Audi accidents have occurred.

Following the Center’s petition, NHTSA expanded its low-level probe of runaway Audi’s to include all 1978-86 models with automatic transmission. VWoA, acknowledging sales declines in the Northeast of 15% for the Audi 5000, initially announced plans in May 1986 to conduct a “service campaign” to correct a problem of drivers “inadvertently” pressing the accelerator when intending to brake.

VWoA’s service campaign proposed moving the brake and accelerator pedals farther apart in the 1984-86 model 5000’s. However the plan, announced before a meeting of over 150 angry Audi 5000 owners and accident victims, was denounced by the newly formed Audi Victims Network. Under growing pressure from owners and attorneys general offices (Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan had since also petitioned NHTSA to investigate and recall the runaway Audi’s), VWoA dropped its planned service campaign and announced instead in August 1986 that it would install a transmission interlock device requiring the driver to depress the brake in order to shift out of Park. This service campaign, originally announced for 1984-86 models only, was later extended to all 1978-86 5000 automatics.

Despite VWoA’s service campaign, NHTSA on August 15, 1986, announced the opening of a formal investigation into sudden acceleration on the 1978-86 Audi 5000.

Then on November 23, 1986, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program broadcast “Out of Control,” a segment on the Audi 5000 sudden acceleration problem. The program contrasted tragic accounts of Audi accident victims with statements from company spokespersons insisting that accidents were due to driver error. CBS also used interviews with private engineers who had developed theories about how problems with the Audi’s transmission and electronic idle stabilizer valves could cause the car to self-accelerate. In addition, CBS featured charges by the Center that Audi was running a “secret recall” in the form of a service campaign to replace defective idle stabilizer valves. (See NHTSA recall summary below for 86V-103 where NHTSA points out that as part of recall to prevent engine compartment fires, Audi was replacing the idle stabilizer valve with no reason given.) Finally, CBS reported on three sudden acceleration accidents that had occurred in Audi’s with the company’s “shift lock” device.

Audi sales, which had already dropped about 20% following publicity of the Center’s petition, plummeted by 60% after CBS’ “60 Minutes” broadcast aired. The company was also under fire outside the U.S. as reports of “runaway Audi’s” came in from Canada and Europe. Audi ultimately extended its “shift lock” recall to Canada and Sweden, where fatal “runaway Audi” accidents had occurred.

In December, with Audi sales still reeling, NHTSA offered the company a way out. In a recall “request” issued to VWoA December 23, 1986, NHTSA suggested that the two Audi service campaigns to replace idle stabilizers and install shift locks be relabeled as safety recalls. NHTSA appeared to embrace Audi’s “driver error” theory, theorizing in its recall request letter that owners might be startled by a high idle condition into making a “pedal placement error.”

VWoA and Audi agreed in January to comply with NHTSA’s request to relabel its service programs as safety recalls covering 250,000 1978-86 Audi 5000’s with automatic transmissions. Though the recalls came under sharp attack from the Illinois Attorney General, the Audi Victims Network and the Center, which noted that “sudden acceleration” accidents had already occurred in Audi’s with the shift lock, NHTSA praised Audi’s action and predicted it would “reduce” the number of Audi acceleration accidents. Later NHTSA Administrator Diane Steed wrote the Center, calling it “irresponsible” for attacking VWoA’s recall.

But Audi’s and VWoA’s troubles were not over. On January 15, 1987 VWoA provided to NHTSA for the first time all the acceleration complaints it had received on the Audi 5000, sending the accident toll past 1600, including 400 injuries. On May 15, 1987, responding to a NHTSA “technical review” of a defect petition filed by the Center, VWoA agreed to recall 25,000 1985-86 Audi 4000, Audi GT and VW Quantum cars with the same five-cylinder engine as the Audi 5000, to replace defective idle stabilizer valves. (87V-069.)

But Audi’s solution to apparent unintended acceleration was not remedied by installation of the shift lock device in its recall; by mid-summer of 1987, Audi owners reported over 100 incidents of unintended acceleration on Audi 5000s with a shift lock device. The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPRIG) published a 190 page report, Shifting the Blame: A Report on Sudden Acceleration in the Audi 5000, in July of 1987, citing 125 such incidents. This report was cited by fifteen members of Congress and forwarded to DOT Secretary Elizabeth Dole, along with a letter criticizing the ineffectiveness of the recall and calling for stronger action.

In response to the controversy surrounding the Audi 5000, two class actions were filed in 1987 against Volkswagen of America, Inc. (VWoA), Audi’s parent company. (Nos. 87 CH 02076 and 87 CH 02234, both filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Chicago, Illinois.) These actions were consolidated, and a proposed class action settlement was reached between class counsel and VWoA. Under the terms of the settlement, past and present owners and lessees of model years 1978-1986 would be entitled to a cash certificate ranging in value from $300-$2000, good only when applied against purchase of a new Audi. Although Judge Harold Seigan initially approved the settlement, he recused himself after receiving objections from the Center for Auto Safety, the Audi Victims Network, and NYPIRG, and hundreds of other class members. Judge Thomas R. Rakowski vacated the proposed settlement on August 11, 1988, citing, among other grounds, the unfairness to class members of having to purchase a new Audi to receive any compensation.

In July 1992, Circuit Court Judge Bischke of Cook County Court dismissed the fifth amended complaint in the Audi 5000 sudden acceleration class action originally filed in 1987, Case No. 87-02076. This began a long and tortuous appeals process.  First, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the fifth amended complaint and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. Perona v. Volkswagen of America, 276 Ill.App.3d 609, 213 Ill.Dec. 328, 658 N.E.2d 1349 (1995). During the pendency of a Petition for Leave to Appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an opinion in Connick v. Suzuki Motor Co., 174 Ill.2d 482, 221 Ill.Dec. 389, 675 N.E.2d 584 (1996), then vacated Perona, 276 Ill.App.3d 609, 213 Ill.Dec. 328, 658 N.E.2d 1349 and remanded it for reconsideration in light of the Connick opinion. This time the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the UCC and Magnuson-Moss claims but reversed the dismissal of the Consumer Fraud Act claims and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. Perona v. Volkswagen of America, 292 Ill.App.3d 59, 684 N.E.2d 859 (Ill.App. 1 Dist.,1997).  Plaintiffs then filed a sixth amended complaint and defendants sought to remove the case to Federal district court under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 and on diversity.  On June 1, 2006, the US District Court for Northern District  of Illinois ruled that removal was improper and remanded it once again to the Circuit Court of Cook County for trial (2006 WL 1543752 (N.D.Ill.)) where it stands in October 2009 over 22 years after first being filed.

The phenomenon of sudden acceleration has drawn the attention of scientists around the world. Immediately following the Audi 5000 investigation in the US, several studies by various government agencies have tried but failed to resolve the cause of sudden acceleration. The only study to pinpoint a specific defect within the vehicle, “Risk Assessment of Cruise Control,” by Mats Gunnerhed, was conducted by the Swedish Defense Research Establishment of the Department of Information Technology. Issued in May of 1988, it concluded that within certain types of cruise control systems “there is a single-point-fault mode that leads to sudden acceleration at high power.” The specific fault pointed out by the Swedish agency was a “bad solder joint” in the Hella cruise control used on 1981-83 Audis. All of the Audis experiencing sudden acceleration which are the subject of the class action were with cruise control systems.

Transport Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the Department of Transportation, issued a report entitled, “Investigation of Sudden Acceleration Incidents” in December, 1988, concluding driver error caused the phenomenon. Another study which could not determine the cause of sudden acceleration was “An Investigation on Sudden Starting and/or Acceleration of Vehicles with Automatic Transmissions,” conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Transport and released April 27, 1989. It found no common mechanical cause for sudden acceleration, which it analyzed it conjunction with simultaneous brake failure.

The study conducted by NHTSA, “An Examination of Sudden Acceleration,” drew a conclusion similar to that of the Canadian report, but emphasized human factors design errors in the layout of vehicle controls in the driver compartment of cars found to have high sudden acceleration rates. The NHTSA study is small solace for Audi in defense of product liability actions, as more and more successful cases used Audi’s human factor design errors and failure to warn or recall as a basis for liability. The NHTSA study also found but failed to highlight that faulty cruise control systems can cause wide open throttle acceleration, and that cars with full acceleration take an average of 65 feet to stop. This report was released March 7, 1989. NHTSA officially closed its investigation of sudden acceleration in the Audi 5000 on July 11, 1989. (Investigative Report ODI Case No. C86-01.)  In closing the investigation, one factor NHTSA relied upon was the fact that there had been three recalls and a service campaign attempting  to correct the human factors design errors; 87V-008, 87V-009, and 87V-170. None of these recalls eliminated sudden acceleration in the Audi 5000.

NHTSA Summary of Audi 5000 Investigations and Recalls