James Sikes, left, says his 2008 Prius kept speeding while he was "laying… (John Gibbins / Associated…)
A federal probe into a Toyota Prius that took a wild ride on a San Diego County freeway last week is casting doubt on the driver's account of uncontrollable acceleration, a spokesman for a Southern California congressman said Sunday.
James Sikes called 911 during the incident and said the gas pedal in his blue 2008 Prius was stuck, causing the car to speed along Interstate 8 at more than 90 mph. Sikes, 61, brought the car to a stop about 20 minutes later with the coaching of a California Highway Patrol officer who pulled alongside him.
Sikes later said the car kept speeding while he was "laying on the brakes" during the March 8 ride.
But when investigators from the federal government and Toyota Motor Corp. who tested Sikes' car late last week pressed hard on the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time, the Prius' gasoline engine shut down, according to a draft of a congressional memo obtained by The Times.
The draft memo was prepared by a staff member for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) who accompanied the investigators last week.
The tests of Sikes' Prius create concerns about "the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes," said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Issa.
Mike Michels, a Toyota spokesman, declined to comment on any findings from the examination of Sikes' vehicle. But he said the complex design of the hybrid Prius would cause a shutdown of the engine in the scenario Sikes described.
That response, similar to a feature known as brake override, was included in the design "to protect the hybrid system from overload and damage," Michels said.
"In essence, if the accelerator pedal was depressed for any reason, whether it was stuck or your foot was on it, and you apply the brakes with moderate to heavy force, it would shut down the engine," Michels said. "Knowing what we know about how the vehicle is designed and reading the accounts in the media of the incident in San Diego, we're puzzled."
Some Prius models are among millions of Toyota vehicles recalled since late last year because of reported acceleration problems. Sikes has said that he received a recall notice but that his car had not yet been repaired.
Toyota began installing brake overrides in other vehicles only this year.
Sikes stands by his account, his lawyer, John Gomez, said Sunday.
Gomez said it wasn't surprising or significant that technicians were unable to replicate the out-of-control acceleration.
"There's a ghost in the machine," he said. "And no one is able to replicate it or pinpoint it or identify it. . . . It doesn't leave a way to make the particular vehicle do it again."
The lawyer also said Sikes had no incentive to make something up.
"He's made clear he's not looking to file a lawsuit," Gomez said. "He's declined every invitation to appear on national television. . . . He likes his vehicle, was up to date on the payments of his vehicle. So he's not trying to get rich, he's not trying to get famous. He only wanted the truth to come out."
Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the safety agency wasn't yet releasing any information about Sikes' Prius.
The agency's investigators "are continuing to review data from the Prius throughout the weekend," she said. "When they have finished their work, we will have something to say, and not before."
Unintended acceleration has been blamed in 56 fatal accidents involving Toyota vehicles in the U.S. going back as far as 2004. In recent months, Toyota has issued about 10 million recall notices worldwide to address sudden acceleration, braking and other problems in its vehicles.
The examination of Sikes' car found a significant amount of wear of the brakes, according to the congressional memo.
An analysis being done of the pattern of wear could shed more light on what happened, said Bardella, the Issa spokesman.
"Whatever NHTSA ends up producing about the brake pattern will be more empirically telling than whether the brakes were just applied or not," he said.