Toyota Says 'Runaway' Prius Driver May Have Had His Foot on the Gas

Automaker says driver hit brake, gas pedals at least 250 times.

March 15, 2010, 1:23 PM

March 15, 2010 — -- At a Monday afternoon press conference, Toyota representatives said that there were "significant inconsistencies" between what driver James Sikes said happened to his 2008 Prius on a San Diego freeway last week, and what their own inspection and test drive of the vehicle showed.

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

According to Toyota, while Sikes' front brakes were worn away, his rear brakes were "fine," and a reading of electronic data from Sikes' car showed that he had applied the brakes and the accelerator alternately at least 250 times.

Michels and the other Toyota representatives gathered before a microphone at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium stopped short, however, of saying the data indicated Sikes was actually trying to keep the car in motion rather than stop it.

Michels said the company was not calling Sikes a liar. "We are not calling him anything," said Michels.

Asked what might motivate Sikes to tell a tale of random acceleration if it were not true, Michels said he didn't want to speculate. "We don't have an explanation," said Michels.

Michels said the data showed that Sikes must have applied repeated light pressure on the brakes rather than the full pressure needed to stop the car. He said that if Sikes had been applying more than moderate pressure on the brakes while the accelerator was pressed or stuck to the floor, the override system in the Prius would have been activated by the brake and shut off the acceleration.

A Toyota representative confirmed to ABC News, however, that the electronic data did not show how hard the brake was being pressed. "The level of brake application is not recorded," said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons, "only that the brakes were completely released and applied."

Asked at the press conference why the California Highway Patrol officer who helped Sikes bring his car to a stop reported seeing Sikes "standing" on the brakes, Michels said he assumed the officer's account was true.

James Sikes said that the accelerator on his 2008 Prius somehow got stuck during the half-hour March 8 incident, and that he could only stop the car, which reached a top speed of 94 mph, by applying the brakes and his emergency brake.

But attempts by federal investigators and Toyota technicians to recreate the experience during tests last Wednesday and Thursday have raised questions about the driver's version of events.Investigators who test drove the car could not induce sudden acceleration, and said that recreating what Sikes described resulted in the car shutting down, according to a memo drafted by a Congressional observer and provided to ABC News by a source close to the investigation.

"These findings certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes," said Kurt Bardella, spokesperson for Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, when contacted about the memo. "Hopefully, Mr. Sikes will be able and willing to help reconcile the gap between what has been said and what the reported empirical data depicts."

In a statement released Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed that its engineers had "recreated the drive Mr. Sikes took" and had "not been able to find anything to explain the incident that Mr. Sikes reported. It is rare to recreate these unintended acceleration incidents except in floor mat entrapment cases."

However, said the statement, "We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car."

James Sikes' attorney, John Gomez, said the tests did not replicate what his client had actually done while driving the car, and did not support the contention of those who believe Sikes faked the incident for profit or publicity.

"There is no reason whatsoever to believe it's a hoax," said Gomez. "And just to be clear, he is not filing a lawsuit, ever. He's not asking for money, ever. So there's no reason for him to make it up."

After Monday's Toyota press conference, Gomez released a statement saying neither he nor his client would have anything further to say until the investigation is completed.

According to the memo, a Congressional observer was present during the inspection and testing of the car by technicians from Toyota and investigators from NHTSA as of 2 p.m. Wednesday. Some inspection of the car had already been conducted by Toyota and NHTSA. Also present were Prius driver James Sikes and his attorney.

Investigators looked at the floor mat and the pedal. Toyota has issued massive recalls to adjust floor mats and pedals in some of its vehicles, and its floor mat recall includes the 2008 Prius.

"The investigators placed the floor mat back into the car and tried to make the gas pedal stick to the floor board, manipulating the floor mat to see if it was possible for the gas pedal to stick.," said the memo. "Both Toyota and NHSTA were unsuccessful."

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Investigators also inspected the brakes on the vehicle. They found that both the front and rear brake pads were nearly gone. Sikes had said that he had applied the brakes throughout the incident, and officers from the California Highway Patrol had seen his brake lights on and smelled his brakes burning.

On Thursday, the inspection resumed. After replacing the brake pads and rotors, technicians test drove the vehicle. They also test drove an identical Prius.

Sikes had said that when his accelerator seemed to stick, he had tried to pull up on the pedal unsuccessfully. A representative of Toyota said that when both the gas pedal and the brake are pushed to the floor, either the car will shut off or the engine will seize up.

A technician drove the Sikes car for two hours, trying to recreate his experience without success. During the test drive, when the technicians pushed both the gas pedal and the brakes to the floor, the car shut off. This was true in both Sikes' car and in the identical Prius, according to Toyota.

"It does not appear to be feasibly possible, both electronically and mechanically," said David Justo of Toyota Motor Sales, who was present for the test, "that his gas pedal was stuck to the floor and he was slamming on the brake at the same time."

At the press conference Monday, Bob Waltz, Toyota Motor Sales vice president for product quality, said that the rear brakes in Sikes' Prius were "fine" and "functional."

He also restated Toyota's position that the company has pinpointed the causes of sudden acceleration incidents, and that there is no glitch in the electronic throttle, as some have claimed."We believe that we have identified the two causes of unintended acceleration," said Waltz. "Sticky gas pedals and floor mat entrapment."

Mike Michels added that no one liked to talk about the other cause of sudden unintended acceleration – drivers. "There are also human factors," said Michels. "NHTSA will tell you that the vast majority of sudden unintended acceleration incidents are due to human factors."

Waltz said that Toyota is dispatching representatives to Harrison, New York to inspect another Toyota involved in an alleged Runaway Toyota incident. He said that electronic data from the 2005 Prius that hit a stone wall last Tuesday, slightly injuring its 56-year-old driver, will be read Wednesday.

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