Tests fail to duplicate acceleration problem in Prius

(Denis Poroy - AP)
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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

Investigators from Toyota and the government have been unable to duplicate the runaway acceleration in a 2008 Prius that a Southern California man said took him on a 30-mile wild ride last week, according to a draft memo from a congressional panel.

The tests on the Prius -- belonging to San Diego resident James Sikes, 61 -- were conducted in California on Wednesday and Thursday by officials from Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Also observing the test was a staffer from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating Toyota recall problems and heard testimony from top-ranking company officials in recent weeks.

Toyota and the NHTSA allowed the Republican committee staffer to observe the tests and report the findings to both parties on the committee after pressure was applied by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee's ranking member. The memo obtained by The Washington Post is a draft of the final report.

The memo was reported over the weekend by the Associated Press.

"On our test drive, the field technician tried to duplicate the same experience that Mr. Sikes experienced," the staffer wrote in the memo. "After about two hours of driving he was unsuccessful. 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 failure to duplicate the incident is not unusual; Toyota has said it has had difficulty duplicating other reported incidents of runaway vehicles. Sikes's attorney, John Gomez, told the Associated Press that the results do not cast doubt on his client's story and that Sikes is not trying to profit from the incident.

Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella disagreed, saying Sunday that "these findings certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes."

Sikes reported last week that he was unable to get his Prius to stop as it reached speeds of 94 mph even as he pressed both feet on the brake. That part of Sikes's story was verified by the technicians.

"The investigators removed the front tires from the car and a handful of brake dust fell out," the memo reads. "Visually checking the brake pads and rotor it was clearly visible that there was nothing left."

The congressional memo quotes Toyota's David Justo, identified as the company's expert on hybrids, as saying the Prius was designed in such a way that it will shut down if the gas pedal is pushed to the floor and the brakes are applied.

"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," Justo is quoted as saying.

Sikes and his lawyer also witnessed last week's tests on his vehicle. Records show that Sikes filed for bankruptcy two years ago with $700,000 in debt, but has said repeatedly since the incident last week that he seeks no money from Toyota. Sikes called 911 from his runaway vehicle and was finally able to stop his car, he said, after a police cruiser pulled alongside and shouted instructions over a loudspeaker.

On Wednesday, another Toyota driver reported a runaway Prius, this one a 2005 model, which police said struck a stone wall, causing minor injuries to the driver.

The NHTSA has identified 52 deaths in instances of runaway Toyota acceleration. The company has said all along that the problem is caused by mechanical, not electronic, issues. As such, Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles to fix what it calls floor-mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals. However, the NHTSA is investigating Toyota's electronics, including its electronic throttle control system, and Toyota has hired an outside consultant to do the same.

The congressional memo says that the NHTSA bought the gas pedal, throttle body and two on-board computers from Sikes's Prius for $2,500 and plans to investigate them further.


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