A terrible accident, aired on JTBC’s Han Moon-chul’s Dashcam Review in Jan., brought all the past related accidents to the surface. Dashcam video shows a car vertically crossing the road as if it was flying. The accident occurred in Gangneung on Dec. 6 last year. The car, driven by a woman in her 60s, collided with a stationary car in front of her emitting roaring sounds and smoke. After that, it ran about 600m, hit a boundary stone, and crashed into an underground passageway. She was seriously injured and her 11-year-old grandson who was in the car at the time died. She was also booked for violating the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Settlement of Traffic Accidents. It was a suspected Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) incident, which is still under investigation.
Also, on Sept. 15, an accident suspected of being a sudden acceleration occurred in Daegu. A taxi, which was driving at 50km/h with a passenger, had a minor collision with a car that cut in front of it. This caused the vehicle to suddenly begin speeding reaching a staggering 188km/h, before colliding with a stationary vehicle waiting at a traffic signal. Eventually, it slid 250m and overturned. The car had been purchased three months prior to the incident. Moreover, the passenger testified that the driver did not press the accelerator pedal, and this was confirmed by the inside dashcam. Fortunately, there were no deaths, but there were five injuries, including the driver and passenger.
An SUA incident refers to a phenomenon where a car starts uncontrolled rapid acceleration. After the driver starts the engine, the car accelerates rapidly even though the driver is not pressing the accelerator pedal. In addition, the brakes’ vacuum booster malfunctions, so the car fails to stop even when the brake pedal is pressed. Alarmingly, the phenomenon does not reproduce after the accident.
It seems that the only option for the poor driver would be to crash purposefully before the car reaches a high speed. That, however, is totally counterintuitive and the driver only has a few seconds to execute such a decision. Therefore, most SUA incidents lead to major injuries or death. In particular, the most terrible point is after the accident. In reality, it is difficult to prove the responsibility between the driver and the car manufacturer. As a result, it is common to have a lengthy trial ending without it being recognized as an SUA incident.
Then, how about the current status of SUA incidents? Kim Pil-soo, a professor of Div. of Automotive Engineering at Daelim University College, responded, “The number of accidents that are usually reported to the government is about 50 to 100 every year. However, in Korea, drivers are 100% required to determine the cause directly, and the government does not help. Therefore, when an SUA incident occurs, most of them do not report it to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, but rather to a famous lawyer. The number of SUA incidents is greatly inflated by drivers who blame their cars for their own mistakes. It is safe to say that about 80% of the approximate 2,000 accidents that are reported yearly, are due to drivers’ mistakes; the actual number of incidents therefore is about 400. Consequently, out of 25.5 million registered cars in Korea, there is about one incident a day. That is still quite a lot.”
Regarding the cause of SUA incidents, Prof. Kim said, “Cars with Electronic Control Units (ECU) first came out in the early 1980s. Before this time, there were no SUA incidents. Current cars are like a smartphone with wheels. Just as we often get errors while using smartphones, cars may have computing errors leading to sudden acceleration. That is why two characteristics of electronic control are that it leaves no trace after an incident and cannot be reproduced.” In addition, he explained, “90% of SUA incidents occur with gasoline engines and automatic transmission cars, while 10% occur with diesel, electric, and hybrid cars. Most cars in Korea have automatic transmissions, and about 80% of all cars are equipped with dashcams, so the issue of SUA incidents is more controversial than overseas.”
The cause of the SUA incident is usually an error in the ECU. However, there was only one case in which the car’s defect was recognized in a trial in 2018 where it was judged that the car manufacturer should be partially responsible. If the victim and the perpetrator’s claims are opposed, such as an SUA incident, where the details of the accident cannot be proven, the Event Data Recorder (EDR) becomes evidence. EDR data is a record of data including acceleration and brake pedal operation, engine condition, speed, and airbag deployment from 5 seconds immediately before the car crash until 0.2 to 0.3 seconds after the collision. However, various opinions have been raised as to whether this data can be trusted. Ban Ju-il, a professor of Dept. of Global Business Administration at Sangmyung University, said, “I would like to say that EDR data is not 100% reliable. Reliability can be classified into two parts. First, there is quantitative reliability. Studies have shown that the amount of information recorded in the current EDR is only 5 seconds, so there is a limit to accurately identifying and analyzing the incident. For this reason, experts have decided to increase the time that information is stored in the EDR to 20 seconds in the U.S. The second is qualitative reliability. If the electronic unit malfunctions because of either hardware or software, the EDR can record the wrong information. It happens regardless of the user’s intention, as if the text is typed even though the keyboard is not touched when using the PC.”
EDR data is almost the only data for accurately analyzing SUA incidents. However, if reliability is a problem, is there any way to increase the reliability of the data or replace EDR data in the future? Prof. Ban said, “Fundamentally, securing the reliability of ECU is key. It is impossible to achieve 100% reliability, so we need to apply the ‘redundancy’ of providing technically extra devices. This is the same effect of being able to identify a more objective truth if multiple witnesses exist.” In addition, he explained that the most controversial issue in an SUA incident is whether the driver pressed the accelerator or the brake pedal. Accordingly, he said, “When the driver presses the pedal, the command is transmitted to the ECU via the sensor on it. Then, after executing the command, it is finally recorded in the EDR. If there is a problem with the ECU, it is obvious that the information recorded in the EDR cannot be trusted. Therefore, writing directly from the pedal to the EDR without going through the ECU is one of the ways to increase reliability. Recently, there has been a widespread awareness among drivers that EDR data cannot be trusted, so pedal dashcams have been introduced. This method also records pedaling information directly into the data storage device.”
In that case, is there any real way to prevent SUA incidents? First of all, as a way to prevent incidents, Prof. Kim said, “There is the option to install software in such a way that if something goes wrong with the car, the software automatically shuts down rather than introducing a physical shutdown button in the car. I think this can prevent incidents without consumers being anxious.” Also, “To install a foot and pedal dashcam which can be used in trials as obvious evidence to prove that the car is defective, and finally, to amend the law. Currently, the law in Korea is manufacturer-centered, and the law has connectivity. In fact, it is hard to change the law for manufacturers to reveal that their cars are not defective like in the U.S. Therefore, I think that the law should be changed, so the car manufacturers must take joint responsibility for identifying incidents where dashcam and EDR data do not match.”
Since there is currently no solution to prevent SUA incidents, Prof. Kim suggested regular car maintenance and warming up the car before using it. Additionally, he said, “No one knows your car is better than you. If you feel that your car is not acting as usual, I recommend that you take it for a thorough check up.” Also, he added that some level of prevention can be achieved by starting the engine and waiting for one to two minutes in the summer and two to three minutes in winter before driving, and simply checking the condition of the tires and bumpers.
What should the drivers do if a SUA incident occurs? Prof. Kim said, “According to the American Consumer Reports, you should do three actions at once: press the brake pedal as hard as possible, place the transmission lever in neutral, and turn off the engine. However, it is difficult even for me, to remember these and apply them in real situations. More often than not, the engine will not be turned. Naturally, people will try to avoid hitting any object in case of an SUA situation. However, in the few moments you take to swerve to avoid an obstacle or two, the car will exceed 100km/h, and there will be a high probability that the driver will die. In urban areas, there are many vertical structures such as streetlights, telephone poles, and traffic lights. If a car crashes into one of these structures, the airbags will not be deployed, and the probability of death will skyrocket because the energy is concentrated in one place. Among artificial structures, cars have the best energy dissipation structure. I would like to suggest that if your car is accelerating uncontrollably, you should hit another car before it reaches a dangerous speed. The cars will be crushed, and the other person can be injured, but human life will be saved. You have to avoid hitting large vehicles like trucks and buses because they have high bodies, and your car may wedge under them which is extremely dangerous. It is extreme, but I think it is the only way.”
Unfortunately, anyone can be victims of an incident. In fact, since the injury to drivers is severe and there is no clear way to prevent SUA incidents consumers, including readers, should pay greater attention to prevention and management. Now that new technologies are being applied to automobiles and they are constantly evolving, it is impossible to know how many serious accidents will occur in the future. Consequently, efforts to accurately identify and prevent SUA incidents, which are currently controversial, will be a challenge for the future.
By Seok Yeon-ji
By Kim Ja-hyeon