Video: Toyota sees 'inconsistencies'

updated 3/15/2010 7:53:01 PM ET 2010-03-15T23:53:01

Toyota Motor Corp. dismissed the story of a man who claimed his Prius sped out of control on the California freeway, saying Monday that its own tests found the car's gas pedal and backup safety system were working just fine.

The automaker stopped short of saying James Sikes had staged a hoax last week but said his account did not square with a series of tests it conducted on the gas-electric hybrid.

"We have no opinion on his account, what he's been saying, other than that the scenario is not consistent with the technical findings," spokesman Mike Michels told a press conference.

The episode March 8 was among the highest-profile headaches Toyota has suffered in recent months. It recalled more than 8 million cars and trucks worldwide because gas pedals can become stuck in the down position or be snagged by floor mats. Dozens of Toyota drivers have reported problems even after their cars were supposedly fixed.

In Sikes' case, Toyota said it found he rapidly pressed the gas and brakes back and forth 250 times, the maximum amount of data that the car's self-diagnostic system can collect. That account appears to contradict Sikes' statement — backed by the California Highway Patrol — that he was frantically slamming the brakes, at one point lifting his buttocks off the seat.

The company had no explanation for discrepancies with Sikes' account but confirmed the brakes were overheated and the pads worn. Bob Waltz, vice president of product, quality and service support at Toyota Motor Sales USA., said the front brakes were "metal to metal."

Toyota said it believes a CHP officer's account that he smelled burning brakes while guiding Sikes on the freeway.

"That is the puzzling aspect of this," Michels said.

Sikes has said his car raced to 94 mph (151 kph) on a freeway near San Diego. He called police, but did not respond to instructions from the dispatcher to shut off the engine or throw the car into neutral.

The CHP officer ultimately helped bring the car safely to a stop by telling him over a loudspeaker to hit the emergency brake and foot brake simultaneously. Sikes spoke to reporters shortly after the incident but has since kept a low profile.

Toyota said it had conducted two days of tests on the car last week. It found severe wear and damage on the front brakes from overheating, but the rear brakes and parking brake were in good condition.

And the rest of the car was fine, the automaker said — the gas pedal was not slowed by friction, the floor mat was not even touching the pedal, and a system that cuts the engine power when the gas and brakes are pressed at the same time was working.

A statement from Sikes' attorney, John H. Gomez, said the firm would not comment further on the episode until a government investigation was complete. Sikes did not respond to phone messages.

The company also said the push-button power switch worked normally and shut the car off when pressed for three seconds, and that the shift lever worked normally, so the car could be shifted into neutral.

The power management computer contained no diagnostic trouble codes, and the dashboard malfunction lights were not activated, Toyota said.

Earlier in the day, federal regulators said they were reviewing data from the gas-electric hybrid but so far had not found anything to explain the out-of-control acceleration reported by Sikes.

"We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement.

On Sunday, Gomez said it was neither surprising nor significant that inspectors had been unable to recreate the conditions reported by Sikes.

"They have never been able to replicate an incident of sudden acceleration. Mr. Sikes never had a problem in the three years he owned this vehicle," he said.

But Rep. Darrell Issa suggested it raised questions about Sikes' story.

"It doesn't mean it didn't happen, but let's understand, it doesn't mean it did happen," Issa said on CBS' "The Early Show."

Toyota spokesman John Hanson said the event data recorder — a car's version of the "black box" inspected after plane crashes — would be of no use to investigators because it only stores information when the airbags are deployed. The box only stores four to six seconds of information before the airbags go off, he said.

But investigators were able to download valuable information from the hybrid's control computer system, which showed the car was functioning normally, Toyota said.

Toyota will give the car back to Sikes soon, Michels said, indicating that no further testing will be done for electronic causes.

Two outside experts, however, said it would be a mistake not to test for unknown electronic gremlins, such as electromagnetic interference, static electricity or software glitches. Those problems, they said, can gum up electronics and then disappear.

It's possible the Prius' backup system could have been compromised by an electronic glitch, said Keith Armstrong, a British electronic engineer and consultant who advises companies on electromagnetic interference.

Toyota challenged Sikes' account that a dealer turned him away when he brought the car in a few weeks ago after he got a recall notice. It said Toyota of El Cajon, east of San Diego, checked his floor mats and told him he would get a notice when they would be replaced.

The 2008 Prius is subject to a recall for floor mats but not sticky accelerators.

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