‘Runaway Prius’ could put Toyota back on track
If driver’s account of his unstoppable Prius proves bogus, it could help troubled Toyota
After weeks of bad news turning to worse, Toyota's luck could be changing after doubts emerged about a recent safety-scare incident in the US. Last Monday, 61-year-old James Sikes called emergency 911 to report that his blue 2008 Toyota Prius was travelling of its own volition at 90 miles per hour on Interstate 8 near San Diego and that he was little more than a passenger. He pressed heavily on the brakes, he said, but the car did not respond.
But reports over the weekend cast doubts over Sikes' claim. For a start, Toyotas are designed to release the accelerator when the brake is depressed. Secondly, an inspection of the car carried out jointly by US highway safety officials and Toyota engineers couldn't find any signs the brakes had been applied strongly at high speeds over a sustained period of time.
"It does not appear to be feasibly possible, both electronically and mechanically, that Sikes' gas pedal was stuck to the floor and he was slamming on the brake at the same time," investigators wrote in a pre-report memo.
Then it turned out Sikes' would or could not follow the emergency services instructions to put the car into neutral. Sikes later said he was afraid doing so might cause the car to shift into reverse. "I didn't know if the car would flip," he later explained. "I had no idea how it would react."
Plainly put, there are growing doubts over Sikes's account. An unidentified man who bought a home from Sikes in 2007 has questioned whether Sikes was "trying to pull a scam here".
A survey of Sikes's recent form found he was bankrupted in California two years ago with $700,000 in debts and outstanding payments on the blue Prius of $19,000. Further, in 2001, Sikes filed a police report for $58,000 in stolen property, including jewelry, a digital video camera and equipment and $24,000 in cash.
Sikes maintains his account is true. "I've had things happen in my life," Sikes told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "but I'm not making up this story."
The question is whether this is just the start of what could be an avalanche of dubious claims exploiting Toyota's new-found reputation since the recall of 8.5 million vehicles due to genuine acceleration and braking problems. Or, if Sikes turns out to be a scam artist, could it herald of the carmaker’s resurrection?
As Brian Cooley, who blogs on cars for CBS News, wrote yesterday: "The US media machine loves nothing more than to build up a hero (awe-struck coverage of Toyota's rise to No. 1), then tear it down, then raise it up again as a maligned hero...
"If the San Diego Prius turns out to be a bogus story, it will almost certainly be the start of the 'maligned hero' phase that restores the benefit of the doubt to the carmaker and props up a ladder it can climb back to unanimous public esteem. I just hope that doesn't blot out the truth about what, if anything, is really going on with their cars."
Toyota could only say it was "mystified" by Sikes's account. "It's tough for us to say if we're sceptical," said Don Esmond, senior vice president of automotive operations at the firm.
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