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March 15, 2010

US: Fed probe casts doubt on Prius driver’s account – paper

A federal probe into a Toyota Prius alleged to have accelerated unintentionally on a San Diego County freeway last week is casting doubt on the driver's account of uncontrollable acceleration, a spokesman for a Southern California congressman told the Los Angeles Times (LAT) for a report published on Sunday.

A federal probe into a Toyota Prius alleged to have accelerated unintentionally on a San Diego County freeway last week is casting doubt on the driver’s account of uncontrollable acceleration, a spokesman for a Southern California congressman told the Los Angeles Times (LAT) for a report published on Sunday.

The paper said driver James Sikes called emergency services during the incident and said the accelerator pedal in his 2008 Prius was stuck, causing the car to speed along Interstate 8 at over 90mph (145km/h). Sikes, 61, brought the car to a stop about 20 minutes later with help from a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer who pulled alongside him.

Sikes later said the car kept speeding while he was “laying on the brakes” during the 8 March incident, according to the LAT.

But, according to a draft of a congressional memo obtained by the LAT, when federal government and Toyota Motor investigators tested Sikes’ car late last week, and pressed hard on the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time, the Prius’ petrol engine shut down.

This is exactly what the vehicle was designed to do, according to Toyota Motor Sales USA’s own website which says: “Toyota hybrid models feature the brake override system, which automatically reduces engine power when the brake pedal and accelerator pedal are applied together.” The site also offers owners the chance to “learn the proper procedure for bringing your hybrid vehicle to a safe stop when engaging the brake override system”.

The draft memo was prepared by a staff member for Republican Representative Darrell Issa from Vista who accompanied the investigators last week, the LAT said.

The tests of Sikes’ Prius create concerns about “the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Sikes,” Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella told the paper.

A Toyota spokesman declined to comment to the LAT on any findings from the examination of Sikes’ vehicle but said, as noted above, the complex design of the hybrid Prius would cause a shutdown of the engine in the scenario Sikes described.

That response, similar to a feature known as brake override, was included in the design “to protect the hybrid system from overload and damage,” Michels said.

“In essence, if the accelerator pedal was depressed for any reason, whether it was stuck or your foot was on it, and you apply the brakes with moderate to heavy force, it would shut down the engine,” Michels said. “Knowing what we know about how the vehicle is designed and reading the accounts in the media of the incident in San Diego, we’re puzzled.”

The LA Times noted that some Prius models are among millions of Toyota vehicles recalled since late last year because of reported acceleration problems. Sikes has said that he received a recall notice but that his car had not yet been repaired.

Toyota began installing brake overrides in other vehicles only this year.

Sikes stood by his account, his lawyer, John Gomez, told the LA Times. He added it wasn’t surprising or significant that technicians were unable to replicate the out-of-control acceleration.

“There’s a ghost in the machine,” he said. “And no one is able to replicate it or pinpoint it or identify it. . . . It doesn’t leave a way to make the particular vehicle do it again.”

The lawyer also said Sikes had no incentive to make something up.

“He’s made clear he’s not looking to file a lawsuit,” Gomez said. “He’s declined every invitation to appear on national television. . . . He likes his vehicle, was up to date on the payments of his vehicle. So he’s not trying to get rich, he’s not trying to get famous. He only wanted the truth to come out.”

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jill Zuckman said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which her department oversees, wasn’t yet releasing any information about Sikes’ Prius.

The agency’s investigators “are continuing to review data from the Prius throughout the weekend,” she said. “When they have finished their work, we will have something to say, and not before.”

The examination of Sikes’ car found a significant amount of wear of the brakes, according to the congressional memo.

Meanwhile, TMS has scheduled a press conference for 12:30PDT (19:30GMT) today (15 March, 2010) to announce its preliminary findings into the San Diego event.

Later report here

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