I agree that generally you would not close one section when you open another - why unnecessarily restrict the user?
However, there can be occasions where it might make sense to do so, and if implemented well it can present a very slick experience.
To make it work:
- each section needs to be of identical size so that the larger frame does not shift around in size, this also allows the submit/apply button to stay in constant position.
- a smooth animated transition as the section opens can make for a less jarring experience - allowing one section to open at exactly the same time as the other closes.
- the section headers can show further information in addition to the title - such as completion status.
- above all it should be appropriate to the workflow. For example if the user is always going to be done with one section as they move to the next and would want to close the previous section manually then there's nothing wrong with helping them out and closing it automatically anyway. It would not work so well if the user requires some back and forth random access to each section.
The in-place nature of such a mechanism may also be well suited to mobile devices as the user doesn't need to see the whole set of expanded content, and thanks to the visibility of the collapsed headers, always has an overview of all the sections.
Clearly too many sections will make the mechanism worse, but that can be alleviated by scrolling section headers out of view at top and bottom as you work through them. (You'd want to indicate number of sections somewhere.)
A particularly well done example can be found in the BBC iPlayer for BTVision implemented by PushButton TV, (since acquired by Amazon). Although this is not a form, it could work equally well as one.
There you can see the second section moving up and reducing in size and the header colour fading out, in synch with the next section opening up, increasing in size and the header colour fading in, resulting in the next section taking the exact same footprint as the previous one when it was open.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the preferential use of auto-collapsable accordians for all situations. I would just say that the option should not be casually ruled out without considering whether it may in fact be a good fit for a given scenario.