Toyota Investigation Casts Doubt on Runaway Prius Driver's Story


Through apologizing for its quality failures, Toyota Motor (TM) went on the offensive Monday, saying a California man's story that his Prius hybrid sped uncontrollably down a San Diego freeway last week doesn't add up.

"While a final report is not yet complete, there are strong indications that the driver's account of the event is inconsistent with the findings of the preliminary analysis," Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said during a press conference in San Diego. "We're not calling him a liar and we're not judging what he did or did not do," Michels said.

James Sikes, 61, made national headlines a week ago after he dialed 911 and said he was unable to stop his hybrid, which allegedly had reached speeds of more than 90 miles an hour, despite repeated, forceful applications of the brakes. A California Highway patrolman was dispatched to help Sikes slow and eventually stop the vehicle. A local television station captured images of the blue 2008 Prius being towed away after the 23-minute ordeal ended and of Sikes relaying his harrowing tale to reporters.

Toyota's two-day investigation of Sikes' vehicle found that the accelerator pedal was working properly and exhibited none of the stickiness that led to a recall of some 2.3 million Toyota vehicles last month, Michels said. Prius models were not included in the accelerator-based recall. The investigation also found no problem with the car's floor mats, which are involved in a separate recall involving more than 5 million Toyota cars, including the 2004 to 2009 Priuses.

The front brakes of Sykes' vehicles showed severe wear and damage from overheating, Michels said, but the rear brakes and parking brake were in good condition. The damage to the front brakes was consistent with someone who applied them lightly but repeatedly -- some 250 times over a 30-mile stretch of highway, contradicting Sikes' statements that he forcefully applied them.

Toyota investigators also concluded that the push-button power switch on Sikes' Prius was working properly, Michels said, adding that it shut off the car during testing and no diagnostic trouble codes were found on the car's computer system.

Michels took issue with the media for sensationalizing the story, noting that the intercepting highway patrol officer never used his patrol car to physically stop the runaway Prius, as was reported by some news outlets.

Toyota's findings are largely consistent with those of investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who also examined Sikes' car. Earlier Monday, NHTSA said its engineers are reviewing data from the Prius to try to understand what happened. But so far, the agency said, it hasn't been able to find anything to explain the incident.

"We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car," NHTSA said in a statement. The agency said its inspectors tried to duplicate last week's acceleration episode during a two-hour test drive, but were unsuccessful.