Toyota's Showdown: The Company is Calling the Runaway Prius Owner's Bluff

What happened to the customer always being right? Toyota has other ideas, since it issued a broadside late Monday challenging the account...

What happened to the customer always being right? Toyota has other ideas, since it issued a broadside late Monday challenging the account presented by Toyota Prius owner James Sikes, who says his car ran away with him inside (reaching speeds of 90 mph or more) on a San Diego freeway on March 9. Toyota says his account "is inconsistent with the findings of the preliminary analysis."

If this were a western, Sikes' hands would hover over his holster as he growled, "Are you callin' me a liar?" Today, he'd be more likely to call his lawyer, and Sikes does indeed have one - John Gomez of San Diego, whose firm e-mailed a statement that they'd have no comment until the investigation is complete. Sikes, who wasn't injured, has said he's not filing suit.

It's unlikely that this preliminary investigation will "clear the air," as Toyota wishes it would. The symptoms Sikes reports have been cited by too many others for the incident to have been an isolated figment of one guy's mind. Sikes said the car took off under full throttle, and the brakes were ineffective at stopping it. The same scenario has been reported many times, including in another Prius immediately afterwards, this time across the country in Connecticut.

Sikes does have some credibility issues - he made inconsistent statements, and is reportedly deeply in debt, has made past insurance claims, declared bankruptcy, and wasn't even making his Prius payments - but people have clearly sympathized with his plight (maybe even the debt!) because it has so many echoes.

Here's a local TV station's investigation into Sikes' past. The neighbors don't seem to like him much:
Toyota ripped the runaway Prius apart in testing on March 11 and 12. It found, among other things:

• The car had the right carpeted floor mat, but it was "not secured to the retention hooks."
• During testing, the brakes were purposely abused by continuous light application in order to overheat them. The vehicle could be safely stopped by means of the brake pedal, even when overheated.
• There were no diagnostic trouble codes found in the power management computer, nor was the dashboard malfunction indicator light activated. The hybrid self-diagnostic system did show evidence of numerous, rapidly repeated on-and-off applications of both the accelerator and the brake pedals.
• The system features a sophisticated self-protection function which cuts engine power if moderate brake pedal pressure is applied and the accelerator pedal is depressed more than about 50 percent, in effect providing a form of "brake override." This function, which is intended to protect the system from overload and possible damage, was found to be functioning normally during the preliminary field examination.

The car's failure to display a trouble code does not necessarily mean it has no electronic issues, because Toyota's nemesis, Southern Illinois University professor David Gilbert, says he was able to reproduce sudden acceleration without triggering any codes. Toyota has said his rigged hot wiring would never occur in real life.

Most German cars have brake override systems (in part because of the 1980s Audi sudden acceleration scare), and I was able to see it dramatically demonstrated at BMW headquarters. The existence of "a form of brake override" on Toyotas will be news to sudden acceleration victims, who universally claim to have pushed the brake pedal to the floor. "I was laying on the brakes, but it wasn't slowing down," Sikes said.

Toyota said that it "would be extremely difficult for the Prius to be driven at a continuous high speed with more than light brake-pedal pressure, and that the assertion that the vehicle could not be stopped with the brakes is fundamentally inconsistent with basic vehicle design and the investigation observations."

Again, you have to ask why so many people report doing exactly what Toyota says can't happen - the car hitting high speeds with the brakes smoking. One is forced to confront such classic tomes as Charles Mackay's 1932Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds for an explanation.

Some 60 Toyota owners say their cars experienced sudden acceleration after they were fixed in dealer recalls, and the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," Sikes said. And that struck a chord with millions of Toyota owners out there. If you want to see consumer complaints involving sudden acceleration in Toyotas, visit the federal safety site here.

For those looking for a lighter approach, check out this parody from this weekend's episode of Saturday Night Live:


Jim Motavalli, a writer for the New York Times, is the auto blogger for the Mother Nature Network.

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Photo (cc) by Flickr user The Toad