'Runaway' Prius: Questions raised about driver

The case of a "runaway" Prius in San Diego demonstrates how claims about electronic flaws requires investigators to look carefully at the human element too.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

The case of the runaway Toyota Prius in San Diego highlights the challenges facing Toyota when claims are made about hard-to-trace glitches.

Jim Sikes: Prius driver who claimed uncontrolled acceleration
Jim Sikes: Prius driver who claimed uncontrolled acceleration CBS News

The incident, which received wide national coverage, happened Monday when James Sikes called 911, saying the accelerator in his Prius was stuck and he couldn't slow down. The happening was thought to be another in a string of alleged incidents related to glitches which, in rare cases, may cause uncontrolled acceleration in the Toyota Prius.

But now, Sikes' motives are being questioned by car site Jalopnik, as well as by USA Today. A report from a local Sacramento TV station investigated Sikes' past, also calling into question his motives.

All reports state that Sikes, who filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008, had large debt loads. And USA Today says Sikes had cars repossessed in the past and that his leased Prius was his only remaining car, which he would have to give back in a few months. Though these facts alone do not necessarily add up to an indictment, the veracity of his claims are now being questioned on technical grounds by car Web site Edmunds.com.

Sikes did not return calls to his business.

Dan Edmunds tried to recreate the San Diego 'runaway' Prius incident (see embedded video below)
Dan Edmunds tried to recreate the San Diego "runaway" Prius incident (see embedded video below). Edmunds.com

"It doesn't add up," said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds.com, which just completed a test Friday of a Toyota Prius that's the same generation as the Prius in Sikes' case. (See the Edmunds.com video here.) "I just held the throttle wide open with my right foot and then I pressed on the brakes with my left foot. When you overlap the brake and the throttle in that car, the engine decouples, and the brakes take over completely."

"That's protection that's in the Prius drive train because of the hybrid nature of the vehicle," Edmunds said.

Sikes has claimed otherwise. "I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car and it did something kind of funny...it jumped and it just stuck there," Sikes said at a news conference earlier this week. Sikes said he tried the brakes but this didn't stop the car. "Next thing (that happened was) the officer was on the side of me and told me what to do. And I was standing on the brake pedal. And (the officer) said push the emergency brake too....(Then) it finally started slowing down," he said.

An electronic malfunction, which Sikes may be alleging, is hard to trace and sometimes impossible to replicate, making it difficult for people who have experienced these problems to make a credible case to car manufacturers.

Another option for Sikes--which he elected not to do--was to put the car in neutral. "The other thing we did is something Mr. Sikes was allegedly afraid to do--putting it in neutral," according to Edmunds. "I floored the car, slid the shifter into neutral. It's even less dramatic in a Prius than in a regular car. In a regular car, when you put it into neutral, the engine revs climb dramatically. In the Prius, when you put in neutral, the engine dies."

Sikes said at the news conference that he was afraid to put the car in neutral because he thought it would "flip the car."

"I've since found out that's not possible," Sikes said, "but I had no idea."

Updated at 8:00 p.m. PST throughout.