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Runaway Prius may be hoax

By ELLIOT SPAGAT and KEN THOMAS
March 14, 2010

James Sikes: Did he fake runaway car? (AP)

A memo drafted for a congressional panel says that investigators with Toyota Motor Corp. and the federal government were unable to make a Prius speed out of control as its owner said it did on a California freeway, casting doubt on the driver’s story.

The draft memo, obtained Saturday by The Associated Press, said the experts who examined and test drove the car could not replicate the problems James Sikes said he encountered.

Sikes, 61, called 911 on Monday to report losing control of his Prius as the hybrid reached speeds of 94 mph. A California Highway Patrol officer helped Sikes bring the vehicle to a safe stop on Interstate 8 near San Diego.

During two hours of test drives of Sikes’ car Thursday, technicians with Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to duplicate the same experience that Sikes described, according to the memo prepared for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Every time the technician placed the gas pedal to the floor and the brake pedal to the floor the engine shut off and the car immediately started to slow down,” the memo said.

The report says that, according to Toyota’s “residential Hybrid expert,” the Prius is designed to shut down if the brakes are applied while the gas pedal is pressed to the floor. If it doesn’t, the engine would “completely seize.”

The memo continued that in this case “it does not appear to be feasibly possible, both electronically and mechanically that his gas pedal was stuck to the floor and he was slamming on the brake at the same time.”

The findings raise questions about “the credibility of Mr. Sikes’ reporting of events,” said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for California Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the committee, which is looking into the incident.

Sikes could not be reached to comment. However, his wife, Patty Sikes, said he stands by his story.

“Everyone can just leave us alone,” she said. “Jim didn’t get hurt. There’s no intent at all to sue Toyota. If any good can come out of this, maybe they can find out what happened so other people don’t get killed.”

Mrs. Sikes said the couple’s lives have been turned upside down since Monday and they are getting death threats.

“We’re just fed up with all of it,” she said. “Our careers are ruined and life is just not good anymore.”

Monday’s incident appeared to be another blow to Toyota, which has had to fend off intense public backlash over safety after recalls of some 8.5 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the United States — because of acceleration and floor mat problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius. Regulators have linked 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by accelerator problems.

The brakes on the Prius also did not show wear consistent with having been applied at full force at high speeds for a long period, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing three people familiar with the probe, whom it did not name. The newspaper said the brakes may have been applied intermittently.

Toyota Corp. spokesman Mike Michels declined to confirm the Journal’s report. He said the investigation was continuing and the company planned to release technical findings soon.

Michels said the hybrid braking system in the Prius would make the engine lose power if the brakes and accelerator were pressed at the same time.

The memo did say that investigators found the front brake pads were spent.

“Visually checking the brake pads and rotor it was clearly visible that there was nothing left,” it said.

The rear brake pads had 1/2 mm left, or 3 1/2 mm less than new pads, the memo said.

Jill Zuckman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Transportation Department that oversees the highway safety agency, said investigators “are still reviewing data and have not reached any conclusions.”

Sikes called 911 from the freeway on Monday and reported that his gas pedal was stuck and he could not slow down. In two calls that spanned 23 minutes, a dispatcher repeatedly told him to throw the car into neutral and turn it off.

Sikes later said he had put down the phone to keep both hands on the wheel and was afraid the car would flip if he put it in neutral at such high speed.

The officer — who eventually pulled alongside the car and told Sikes over a loudspeaker to push the brake pedal to the floor and apply the emergency brake — said Sikes braking coincided with a steep incline on the freeway.

Once the car slowed to 50 mph, Sikes shut off the engine, the officer said.

The memo describes a series of tests conducted by the company and NHTSA on Wednesday and Thursday. A full diagnostics was conducted, followed an inspection of the brakes and a test drive. The Prius was compared with a separate test vehicle provided by the San Diego dealership with identical year, make, model and color features as the one under investigation.

Following the tests, NHTSA bought the gas pedal, throttle body and the two computers from Sikes’ vehicle, the memo said. The estimated cost was $2,500 for the parts and labor.

Drivers of two other Toyota vehicles that crashed last week said those incidents also resulted from the vehicles accelerating suddenly.

NHTSA is sending experts to a New York City suburb where the driver of a 2005 Prius said she crashed into a stone wall Monday after the car accelerated on its own.

And in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the driver of a 2007 Lexus said it careened through a parking lot and crashed into a light pole Thursday after its accelerator suddenly dropped to the floor. That car was the subject of a floor mat recall. Driver Myrna Cook of Paulding, Ohio, said it had been repaired.

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Thomas reported from Washington, D.C.

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