As we've noted before, so-called sudden acceleration is a confusing, messy, and very uncertain subject.
Now a certain San Diego citizen seems to be caught in the cross-hairs of media scrutiny over what is and isn't technically possible in a Toyota Prius--let alone smart to do--if the driver claims the car is accelerating out of control.
Welcome to the strange saga of Mr. Sikes and his Seemingly Suddenly Accelerating Prius.
Dashboard - 2008 Toyota Prius 5dr HB Base (Natl)Enlarge Photo
Gear Shift - 2008 Toyota Prius 5dr HB Base (Natl)Enlarge Photo
There's been more media coverage of the Sikes case than we could possibly do justice to.
But in one sentence: There seems to be a growing possibility that Jim Sikes, the bankrupt, heavily indebted real-estate salesman who claims his 2008 Toyota Prius accelerated uncontrollably for more than 30 minutes on a San Diego freeway, is not telling the truth.
(His ownership of an adult swinger site has little bearing on the story, so we include it here purely for its salacious value.)
Speeds up to 100 mph
Sikes claims that he was driving along an Interstate outside San Diego when, after passing a car, the accelerator pedal on his blue 2008 Toyota Prius remained flat on the floor rather than returning, leading the car to accelerate to speeds over 90 miles per hour.
Sikes claims that (a) he could not turn off the engine; (b) his brakes were overpowered by the acceleration; (c) he reached down to try to pull up on the accelerator pedal; (d) he was afraid to put the car into neutral because it might "flip"; and (e) a patrol car pulled in ahead of him and braked to slow him down.
He finally was able to stop the car, he says, by applying the foot brakes and the emergency brake at the same time. The front brakes pads later proved to be completely worn away, with grooves cut into the discs by the calipers.
The incident was heavily covered on television, complete with footage of the blue 2008 Prius being hauled onto a flatbed truck. Very soon after the car finally stopped, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took possession of it for testing.
Knocking them down
Overseen not only by Toyota field representatives but a Congressional staffer, NHTSA investigators were unable to replicate the behaviors Sikes describes in his car. Pressing hard on the brakes did in fact bring the car to a stop, over multiple tests.
Indeed, Sikes' 2008 Toyota Prius has a "smart accelerator" function built into its throttle software: If both the brakes and accelerator are floored, it cuts power to the engine, making it impossible for the accelerator to overpower the brakes.
As quoted in the Detroit News, a Congressional memo said as much. In a test Prius similar to the Sikes car: "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 NHTSA and Toyota representatives reported exactly the same results with the 2008 Prius owned by Mr. Sikes.
Medium braking: smoke and burning
The website The Truth About Cars rented a 2008 Toyota Prius to test the braking behavior. Its report is worth reading in full.
It concludes that Sikes could have applied the brakes at "moderate" pressure while continuing to accelerate, which would produce the smoking brakes and the worn-down brake pads that were observed by the investigators.
In Forbes, Michael Fumento of the Independent Journalism Project admirably demolishes Sikes' claims that he reached down to try to pull up the accelerator pedal while his car sped out of control at up to 94 mph. The action he describes would be physically impossible.
Sikes claimed that he could not turn off the engine, nor put his 2008 Toyota Prius into neutral, but in fact that's just what he did at the end of the incident.