If Toyota was hoping for a quick resolution to its various problems with sticky accelerators and braking problems, the company was dealt a series of blows last week following reports that drivers suffered more incidents due to unintended acceleration. However, new tests last week by U.S. government officials and Toyota revealed that a San Diego Prius driver likely misled police when he said his car sped out of control last week. The credibility of the driver, James Sikes, was called into question last week when new information surfaced about his background. Technicians with Toyota and NHTSA have found that the incident could not be duplicated during a federal investigation into last week’s dramatic episode.
The results came to light in a memo prepared for the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform.
“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,” read the memo.
NHTSA's finding is in line with the Prius's brake override system -- in place on Sikes's car -- that uses software to cut engine power “if the brakes are applied with moderate to heavy force,” said Mike Michels, a spokesman for Toyota in an e-mailed statement to BusinessWeek.
A Toyota official who was present at the inspection in San Diego said that that an electric motor in the Prius would “completely seize” if that override system had failed. During the investigation there was no evidence found that supported that occurring during Sikes’ incident.
Given these circumstances, the memo said that "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."
The fact that the NHTSA investigation has yielded no findings added further skepticism to Sikes’ account of the incident as the results directly conflict with what he has said happened.
According to his explanation, the 2008 Toyota Prius had inexplicably accelerated to 94 MPH on a San Diego freeway and would not slow down, even though he was standing on the brake with both feet and attempting to pull up the gas pedal with his hands.
He claimed he was only able to come to a stop with the help of a California Highway Patrol Officer who caught up to Sikes after he called 911 and had been traveling close to 100 MPH for more than 20 minutes.
“I won't drive that car again, period,” said the visibly shaken Sikes after the terrifying event.
With technicians unable to find what exactly went wrong during his ordeal, the cracks in his story appear to be widening even more.
“These findings certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes,” a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, the lead Republican on the House Oversight Committee, stated.
Sikes, however, remains defiant.
“That’s not surprising; NHTSA’s never been able to replicate one of these incidents,” said John Gomez, Sikes's attorney. “Toyota denies they happen at all. Mr. Sikes drove the vehicle for three years without incident. The idea that they couldn’t make it happen again really doesn’t show anything.”
Though Sikes stands by his story, the deck is certainly stacked in favor of Toyota, who will make a statement regarding the investigation today at 3:30PM, EDT.
Given the available evidence, Toyota seems poised for victory in the James Sikes runaway Prius saga.
The automaker, however, is far from being out of the woods.
Even though Toyota may come out of the Sikes episode with minimal damage, another incident in California has them, yet again, in hot water.
In an entirely separate case, the district attorney of Orange County, California has filed a lawsuit against Toyota, alleging that the company sold thousands of vehicles knowing that they had potential for unintended acceleration.
The attorney, Tony Rackauckas, has charged the automaker with engaging in deceptive business practices and seeks $2,500 per violation and a court order blocking Toyota from selling defective vehicles as warranted by the Unfair Business Practices Act, the AP reported.
According to The Detroit News, Rackauckas alleged that even though evidence of Toyota’s safety problems has been “massive for many years,” the company and its American subsidiary ignored the issues and settled any lawsuits that may have publicly disclosed the truth.
The DA has claimed that “rather than halt sales of products in California until it genuinely fixed the problem, [Toyota] made the business decision to continue selling their defective products,” in an 18-page complaint. He alleged the company “ignored, omitted, obfuscated and misrepresented the evidence.”
The civil lawsuit is the first of its kind in the United States and, if Rackauckas is successful, will “enjoin [Toyota] from continuing to endanger the public through the sale of defective vehicles and deceptive business practices.”
Toyota has not commented on the lawsuit or the allegations.
The automaker is already subject to a growing number of civil lawsuits from owners of its vehicles who have either experienced unintended acceleration or are scared that it may happen to them.
Given these circumstances, Toyota may find itself wading through lawsuits for a very long time, especially if cases similar to that of Rackauckas’ follow as more counties or even entire states could file suit in the same manner.
Asked Rackauckas, “We demand to know: Did Toyota, in their relentless pursuit to become the No. 1 carmaker in the United States, put profits over people?”
Too Big To Fade Away?
Even if Toyota ends up finding a quick resolution to the James Sikes incident, it's unlikely the company will be able to find a similarly swift ending to the lawsuits they will face, not to mention a long climb rebuilding their public image. Our story about James Sikes and his allegedly false claims racked up some 3000 comments and nearly 100,000 votes in which 81% of AOL users thought the whole ordeal was a fraud.
One reason we know Toyota is going to have a hard time putting this behind them is that the Prius has now elevated to the level of pop culture topic du jour, what with NBC's Saturday Night Live spoofing a Prius in their show this weekend. Watch the clip for yourself below.