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Investigators can't replicate runaway Prius

Published:Monday | March 15, 2010 | 12:00 AM

SAN DIEGO (AP):

Investigators with Toyota Motor Corp and the United States government could not replicate the runaway speeding reported by a Prius owner who said his car's accelerator got stuck as he drove on a California freeway, according to a memo for a congressional panel.

The memo, obtained Saturday by The Associated Press, said the experts who examined and test drove the car could not replicate the sudden, unintended acceleration James Sikes said he encountered. A back-up mechanism that shuts off the engine when the brake and gas pedals are floored also worked properly during tests.

Sikes, 61, called the emergency dispatcher on Monday to report losing control of his 2008 Prius as the hybrid reached speeds of 94mph (151kph). A California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer helped Sikes bring the vehicle to a safe stop on Interstate 8 near San Diego.

The incident happened at the worst possible time for Toyota, which has recalled millions of cars because of floor mats that can snag gas pedals or accelerators that can sometimes stick. Just hours before the incident, Toyota had called reporters to its Torrance, California, office to hear experts refute claims that the company had not identified - or fixed - what might be causing its cars to speed out of control.

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".

Shuts down

During two hours of test drives of Sikes' car Thursday, technicians with Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to duplicate the same experience that Sikes described, according to the memo written by the Republican staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. One congressional staff member observed the investigation of Sikes' Prius.

"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 memo said.

Also, the Prius is designed to shut down if the brakes are applied while the gas pedal is pressed to the floor. If it doesn't, the engine would "completely seize," according to the report that cited Toyota's "residential Hybrid expert".

"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 memo.

The memo did say that investigators found the front brake pads were spent.

"Visually checking the brake pads and rotor it was clearly visible that there was nothing left," it 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 yesterday. "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."

Sikes is not trying to get famous or rich, Gomez said. The driver will not sue Toyota and is turning down media requests for interviews, he said.

Regarding the brake wear, Gomez cited a CHP officer's comment that the brakes smelled as he chased Sikes on the freeway.

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