Sunday, March 14, 2010

Media Comes Around To Question Runaway Prius Story

After breathlessly hyping the story of an out of control Toyota Prius that was claimed unresponsive to braking that finally stopped after a police cruiser became involved, it now appears that the facts don't quite match the claims. In fact, tests by Toyota and the NHTSA suggest that the driver, James Sikes, could not have done what he claims to have done with his Toyota Prius:
A federal probe into a Toyota Prius that took a wild ride on a San Diego County freeway last week is casting doubt on the driver's account of uncontrollable acceleration, a spokesman for a Southern California congressman said Sunday.

James Sikes called 911 during the incident and said the gas pedal in his blue 2008 Prius was stuck, causing the car to speed along Interstate 8 at more than 90 mph. Sikes, 61, brought the car to a stop about 20 minutes later with the coaching of a California Highway Patrol officer who pulled alongside him.

Sikes later said the car kept speeding while he was "laying on the brakes" during the March 8 ride.

But when investigators from the federal government and Toyota Motor Corp. who tested Sikes' car late last week pressed hard on the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time, the Prius' gasoline engine shut down, according to a draft of a congressional memo obtained by The Times.

The draft memo was prepared by a staff member for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) who accompanied the investigators last week.

The tests of Sikes' Prius create concerns about "the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes," said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Issa.

Mike Michels, a Toyota spokesman, declined to comment on any findings from the examination of Sikes' vehicle. But he said the complex design of the hybrid Prius would cause a shutdown of the engine in the scenario Sikes described.

That response, similar to a feature known as brake override, was included in the design "to protect the hybrid system from overload and damage," Michels said.

"In essence, if the accelerator pedal was depressed for any reason, whether it was stuck or your foot was on it, and you apply the brakes with moderate to heavy force, it would shut down the engine," Michels said. "Knowing what we know about how the vehicle is designed and reading the accounts in the media of the incident in San Diego, we're puzzled."

Some Prius models are among millions of Toyota vehicles recalled since late last year because of reported acceleration problems. Sikes has said he received a recall notice but his car hadn't yet been repaired.

Meanwhile, media outlets including Fox have started peering into the driver's background, and it turns out that he had a checkered history. Perhaps he thought this might be a payday? He's gone on the record claiming otherwise, but who knows what he was really thinking.

What it also means is that Toyota might start reclaiming some goodwill with the public - seeing that there was a veritable feeding frenzy of bad news about Toyota and the recall over claims of sudden acceleration and that the company didn't go about handling the matter properly and promptly.

Mind you that the media originally reported the story without fail repeating the statements made by Sikes unquestioningly.

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