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Questions arise over story of runaway Prius

Investigators with Toyota and the federal government were unable to make a Toyota Prius speed out of control as its owner said it did on a freeway, according to a memo.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The mystery surrounding a Toyota Prius whose driver reported a stuck accelerator deepened Sunday as the motorist's attorney dismissed a congressional memo that questions his client's version of events.

The memo said technicians with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota could not duplicate the sudden, unintended acceleration that James Sikes said he experienced March 8 when he reached 94 mph on a California freeway. Investigators tried during a two-hour test drive Thursday.

The memo was based on a congressional staffer's observations of a two-day inspection last week at a dealership in suburban San Diego. A Toyota official who was at the inspection explained that an electric motor would "completely seize" if a system to shut off the gas when the brake is pressed fails, and there was no evidence to support that happened, according to the memo.

"In this case, knowing that we are able to push the car around the shop, 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," according to the report for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for the committee's top Republican, Darrell Issa of California, said Sunday that the findings "certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events" reported by Sikes.

"We're not saying Mr. Sikes is wrong or that he lied, we're saying that questions have arisen in the investigation," Bardella said.

John Gomez, Sikes' attorney, said the findings fail to undermine his client's story.

"I don't put a whole lot of stock in their explanation," he said. "It's not surprising they couldn't replicate it. 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."

Brian Pennings, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said his agency's view that there is no evidence of a hoax is unchanged. The CHP does not plan to investigate the incident because there were no injuries or property damage.

"Unless they can completely disprove Mr. Sikes, we're done," Pennings said. "It doesn't sound like they can do that."

Messages left with three Toyota spokesmen at the automaker's U.S headquarters in Torrance were not returned Sunday. Transportation Department officials did not immediately comment Sunday.

NHTSA is looking into claims from more than 60 Toyota owners that their vehicles continue to accelerate unexpectedly despite having their vehicles repaired.

Toyota has recalled millions of cars because of floor mats that can snag gas pedals or accelerators that can sometimes stick. Sikes' car was covered by the floor mat recall but not the one for sticky accelerators. He later told reporters that he tried to pull on the gas pedal during his harrowing ride, but it didn't "move at all."

The Prius is powered by two electric motor-generators and a small gasoline engine, all connected by transmission gears. A computer, which Toyota calls the "hybrid control computer" determines what combination of motors is needed and which would be most efficient.

Craig Hoff, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., said that for the Prius to accelerate out of control, at least two systems would have to fail simultaneously. They are the sensor signal that tracks the brake and gas pedal positions when the driver presses on them and the hybrid control computers.

"The chance of them both going wrong, plus the fact that the signal is bad, it just seems very, very, very remote," Hoff said. "Could it happen? Statistically, yes. But it just doesn't seem very likely."

Several events usually combine to cause problems with cars, and it's difficult to reproduce them, Hoff said.

"It's going to make it really hard to find, because you've got to line up the multiple effects," he said.

The incident involving the Prius came at the worst possible time for Toyota and happened only a few hours after the company held a high-profile news conference at its Torrance headquarters rejecting assertions of sudden unintended acceleration by an Illinois engineer.

Sikes, 61, could not be reached to comment but his wife said he stands by his story.

"Everyone can just leave us alone," Patty Sikes said Saturday night. "Jim didn't get hurt. There's no intent at all to sue Toyota. If any good can come out of this, maybe they can find out what happened so other people don't get killed."

Mrs. Sikes said the couple's lives have been turned upside down and they've received death threats.

Sikes is not seeking fame or fortune, said Gomez. The driver, who spoke with reporters at least twice after the incident, will not sue Toyota and has declined many requests to appear on national television, he said.

The congressional memo, first obtained by The Associated Press, describes a series of tests conducted by Toyota and the NHTSA on Wednesday and Thursday. A full diagnostics was conducted, followed by an inspection of the brakes and a test drive. Investigators also compared the Sikes vehicle to a 2008 Prius provided by a Toyota dealership.

NHTSA told congressional staff that the results "were the same on both vehicles and within the manufactures specifications," according to the memo.

Following the tests, NHTSA paid Sikes $2,500 for the gas pedal, throttle body and the two computers from his vehicle, the memo said.

The memo said both the front and rear brakes were worn and damaged by heat, consistent with Sikes saying that he stood on the brake pedal with both feet and was unable to stop the car. But if the fail-safe system worked properly, the brakes wouldn't have been damaged because power would have been cut to the wheels.

The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that the wear was not consistent with the brakes being applied at full force for a long period, citing three people familiar with the probe, whom it did not name. The newspaper said the brakes may have been applied intermittently.

Gomez said the best evidence that his client was frantically slamming the brakes is that the CHP officer smelled burning brakes and saw the lights on.

Gomez also represents the family of CHP Officer Mark Saylor, which sued Toyota this month in San Diego Superior Court.

Saylor was killed in August along with his wife, her brother and the couple's daughter after their Lexus accelerator became trapped by a wrong-size floor mat on a freeway in La Mesa, near San Diego. Their loaner car hit a sport utility vehicle and burst into flames.