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Published: 3/15/2010

Tests on Prius remain inconclusive

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON - Investigators have been unable to duplicate the runaway acceleration in a 2008 Prius that a 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.

Observing the test was a staffer from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating Toyota recall problems.

Toyota and the safety agency 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.

"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," the memo states. "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.

Mr. Sikes' attorney, John Gomez, told the Associated Press the results do not cast doubt on his client's story and that Mr. Sikes is not trying to profit from the incident.

Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella disagreed.

"These findings certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes," the spokesman said.

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

Mr. Gomez 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."

Mr. Sikes reported last week that he was unable to get his Prius to stop as it reached speeds of 94 mph even has he pressed both feet on the brake. That part of Mr. Sikes' 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," Mr. Justo is quoted as saying.

Records show that Mr. Sikes filed for bankruptcy two years ago with $700,000 in debt, but he has said repeatedly since the incident last week that he seeks no money from Toyota.

Mr. Sikes called 911 from his runaway vehicle and was finally able to stop his car, he said, after a police cruiser pulled alongside and the officer shouted instructions over a loudspeaker.

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.

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.

NHTSA is investigating Toyota's electronics, however, including its electronic throttle control system, and Toyota has hired an outside consultant to do the same.



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