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Toyota casts doubt on runaway Prius driver's story

Toyota today said that extensive testing of the 2008 Prius hybrid that allegedly took a Southern California driver on a 30-mile runaway ride last week casts serious doubts on his story.

San Diego real estate salesman James Sikes, 61, was the subject of a highly publicized incident on a Southern California freeway last Monday during which he said his Prius' gas pedal stuck, causing his car to speed up to 94 mph. Sikes said he tried to free his gas pedal with his hand, but did not say if he put the car into neutral. He was able to stop the vehicle after calling 911 and receiving instructions from a cruiser that pulled alongside the speeding hybrid.

Toyota and federal government investigators immediately swooped in to examine the car. An initial report of the investigation emerged from a congressional committee on Sunday, saying that investigators could not duplicate the incident.

Today, Toyota made the findings of its investigation public.

"There are significant inconsistencies between the account of March 8 and the findings of this investigation," Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said.

Michel and other Toyota officials said that Sikes' Prius was subjected to extensive testing at a Toyota dealership in El Cajon, Calif., which included inspection of individual parts and vehicle systems, diagnostic testing of the car's on-board computers and data recorder and so on. The front brakes on the car were found to be ground down, or "metal-to-metal," according to Toyota product quality vice president Bob Waltz, so the Prius was outfitted with new brakes and test-driven several times. Toyota and NHTSA officials were not able to duplicate the runaway acceleration Sikes described.

Michel said that if Sikes had heavily applied the brakes simultaneously with the accelerator, as he said he did, "it would have easily stopped the vehicle."

Testing on the Prius showed that the car's brakes had been applied about 250 times during the incident, causing the brakes to overheat. The California patrolman who helped Sikes stop said he smelled brakes burning on the vehicle.

"We think that the vehicle was being driven with its front brakes being applied lightly," Waltz said, because consistently heavy braking would have shut down the engine.

Michel pointed out that Sikes was told by the 911 operator to put his Prius into neutral and to turn off the ignition.

Michel said its investigation of the Prius incident will continue. Toyota provided several Priuses at the news conference so reporters could drive them afterward and see that power to the car's engine is cut when the brakes are applied heavily.

Toyota has recalled about six million vehicles for sticking gas pedals and possible floor-mat entrapment of the pedals. Sikes' 2008 Prius is included in the floor-mat recall.

"To say that this [this incident] was sensationalized is an enormous understatement," Michel said.

Gary Kaminsky, the co-owner of the El Cajon Toyota dealership, appeared at the news conference and said he is so confident in the safety of the vehicles he sells that he would let his daughters ride in a recalled Toyota before the fixes had been performed.

Sikes has said since the incident that he does not seek compensation from Toyota. On Sunday, his lawyer, John Gomez, said it is not unusual that investigators could not duplicate the incident.

Click here to read Toyota's statement on the investigation.

Follow me on Twitter at @theticker

By Frank Ahrens  |  March 15, 2010; 5:51 PM ET
Categories:  Autos , Corporations , The Ticker  | Tags: Runaway acceleration, Toyota Prius, Toyota problems, james sikes, runaway prius, toyota  
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It seems to me that everybody wants to kick Toyota now that it is down on the unintended accelerations issues. The Toyota Prius acceleration story sounded fishy to me from the first moment. And as an owner of a 2003 Toyota Camry that is a superb car, here is why I have my doubts: 1) If my Toyota Camry accelerated to 90 MPH, I would be too preoccupied on how to a) Slow it down; b) avoid crashing on cars ahead of me, and c) looking for an area to crash the car as safely as possible - rather than calling the police. What can the police do? Get ahead of the Prius at 100 MPH, and then hit the police car's brakes to stop the Prius with a real end collision with the squad car? At 90 MPH, the Prius will be pushing the police squad
car with its max 145 horsepower. Would a police car's brakes been able to stop both cars - the squad with its two tons of weight speeding at 94 MPH velocity, while the Prius pushing its rear end with another 145 horsepower? That would have been suicidal for the police officer - to say the least. I believe that the Prius driver driver should told the police that he expected to crash-stop the Prius, and have asked for an ambulance instead!

2. The automobile TV magazine "Motor-week" that appears every Monday evening on PBS TV, always report "brake fade" after repeated stops as part of the quality test of the car's braking system. If the driver of the Prius was slamming the brakes, "brake fade" would have increased, and stopping the car would have been harder, and would have taken longer braking distance. But then, when the police car came by the side, and by that time the "brake fade" should have been at the highest and, therefore, much more harder to stop, the Prius just stopped! And it seems to be that the Prius stopped in a matter that turns sciences upside -down! And the overheated brakes of the Prius seems to me to be another red flag - especially since they worked and stopped
the car when the police arrived, and when both Toyota and the NHTSA tested the car!

I have no doubt that the Prius unintended acceleration headlines were a blessing for GM, Ford, and other car-makers. But the American public and future car buyers may have been spooked by a story without any merit. And I personally believe that this is not the end of the story, but just the beginning! The chips are up in the air now, but eventually they would have to come down and land somewhere! Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by: Nikos_Retsos | March 15, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

I did runaway acceleration test yesterday and banged up gears. Pretty dangerous situation developed around curves and no law enforcement was in sight. Looking at 50:50 purchase plan now. Wheel meet again, until then I am careless.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 16, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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