By on March 15, 2010

Jim Sikes’ Prius high-speed dash to fame or infamy is a media hype-fest, with wild swings in sentiment from Toyota bashing to Sikes trashing. The rush to judgment is innately human, and Sikes certainly makes an easy target. But in the process, very little effort has been made to analyze what actually happened, or what might have actually happened, on the basis of the facts rather than Jim Sikes’ financial history and sexual proclivities.

There clearly are valid questions in Sikes’ seeming inability to bring the Prius to a stop, and certain inconsistent and contradictory statements. But Toyota, which should know better, is not helping either. The brakes on the Prius were utterly worn down in examination, and were witnessed to be smoking. Yet Toyota continues to assert that “the hybrid braking system used in the Prius would make the engine lose power if the brakes were pressed at the same time as the accelerator”. (WSJ 3/14/10) That statement smells as bad as some of Sikes’, so I rented a 2008 Prius to determine what could or couldn’t have happened, and examine some of the other claims and counterclaims. You be the jury.

A memo released by the Congressional aide who witnessed the tear down of the Prius clearly shows that the front brake pads were worn completely off, and grooves had been cut into the discs from the pad retainers or calipers. The rear drum brakes shoes, which tend to wear much more slowly, were worn down to one-eighth of the normal depth. The discs showed signs of heat discoloration. Sikes claimed he smelled the brakes. The CHP officer said he saw the brakes smoking. There is no doubt that the brakes were being applied by Sikes.

This morning, NHTSA issued the following statement: “Further, the Prius is equipped with a system that detects simultaneous brake and accelerator pedal applications. When the brake applications are moderate or greater, the system will close the throttle allowing the vehicle to slow down and stop,” said NHTSA officials. “The system on Mr. Sikes’ Prius worked during our engineers’ test drive.”

The key here is the degree of brake pressure, and what variance there may be from car to car, or if that system is prone to malfunction. I tested the system initially by applying very strong pressure, and the system worked, cutting power from the engine. But there is a wide range of pedal pressure less than a full-on application that did not cut the power.

I drove along for quite a few miles, with wide open throttle (WOT), and kept the Prius’ speed reduced by continuous left foot braking to various degrees. Depending on terrain and brake pressure, vehicle speed was restrained to as little as 45 mph and as high as 90 mph.

Coincidentally, as the battery depleted (from e-motor assist), the brakes also began to lose some effectiveness from excess heat and fade. Describing the amount of pedal pressure used is subjective, but I would call it moderate, comparable to what one would use to come to a stop from high speed in a reasonably short time.

When I noticed increasing fade, I pulled over and the front wheels were engulfed in a cloud of smoke. I had also begun to smell the brakes through the ventilation system. I did not drive long enough to induce significant brake wear, but I have little doubt in my mind that they could be fully worn down driving in this fashion for an extended period, such as Sikes’ thirty-some miles at speeds between 80 and 94 mph.

Several scenarios are possible. The brake override that normally kicks in at high braking pressure could have failed. If his Prius suffered some sort of random electronic “ghost” to cause the UA, than it seems safe to assume that could theoretically also affect the brake override. But even then, it still should have been possible to stop the Prius, IF one strong application was undertaken. If Sikes cycled the pedal repeatedly, like the SD CHP officer in the Lexus did, the relatively modest-sized Prius braking system could have begun to exhibit terminal fade fairly quickly, and the engine would have been able to overpower it to some degree.

If the override system didn’t fail, that leaves two possibilities. Either Sikes purposefully and carefully modulated the brakes just to the degree that allowed the Prius to continue to travel at fairly high speed, using both feet like I did. Or if his Prius really was running wide open against his will, he is such a tentative and poorly skilled driver that he never actually pushed the brake pedal harder than a moderate amount.

Unless his performance on his cell phone was remarkably well controlled, it sounds to me like he was genuinely panicked and was putting all his effort in steering the car and maintaining some degree of control. It’s also clear from the 911 tape that most of the time the phone was on the seat or elsewhere, because he wasn’t responding to almost any of the 911 operator’s requests or questions.

It is possible that since he thought putting the car in neutral might cause it to lose control, he may have felt the same about the consequences of a full-on brake application: that it might throw the Prius into a skid. Many drivers have never explored the full range of their vehicle’s dynamic responses to unfamiliar or extreme control inputs, and are loath to find out.

Speaking of neutral, putting a Prius into that realm is not as simple, obvious or intuitive as might typically be the case. The joystick has to be held to the N position for a more than a moment, because the stick has no detent. And then it goes back to its normal position. This is similar to D and R, but it might be a challenge to ponder during an actual emergency.

One aspect of Sikes’ story is suspect. He claims that the actual gas pedal was stuck to the floor, and that he reached down to try to pull it up, unsuccessfully. First, this is an e-pedal, and a Denso one that has no history of sticking. Even if it was a bit sticky, it would have been easy to pull free,assuming you could reach it. I’m tall, and had no trouble reaching it; Stephanie did (have trouble).  Sikes wants us (or himself) to believe that the engine running wide open would somehow cause the pedal to also be wide open, as would be the case if there was a mechanical linkage or throttle cable.  But he may have said that to convince himself and/or others that he was trying to do something about the runaway Prius.

The hoax theory is compelling, but why would Sikes put himself at serious risk by destroying his brakes, when he had no way of ascertaining when the police would actually show up, if at all? Why not just drive down the freeway at 85 to 90, and just say the brakes didn’t work at all, like others have done? Or run into a wall at slow speed? Somehow, Sikes doesn’t strike me as a high-speed daredevil, willing to risk his life at ninety with completely shot brakes. Of course, that could also just as well confirm his stupidity.

The comparison to the Balloon Boy is appealing, but conveniently leaves out one important fact: the Ballon Boy was never in the balloon; it was launched empty. Sikes actually was in his brakeless Prius at ninety, audibly panting hard, so in that regard at least he was either a lot gutsier or a lot stupider than the Ballon Boy perpetrators. And a hell of an actor, to boot.

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90 Comments on “Jim Sikes: Reconstructing His Wild Prius Ride and Deconstructing The Myths...”


  • avatar
    mcs

    “Either Sikes purposefully and carefully modulated the brakes just to the degree that allowed the Prius to continue to travel”

    The event recorder showed an alternating application of brakes and accelerator according to Toyota at the press conference.

    • 0 avatar
      salhany

      Wouldn’t this be more a sign of panic on Sikes’ part than anything else? His own statements about his fears of popping the car into neutral indicate he wasn’t thinking rationally; I took the evidence that he was pumping on the gas as a sign he was engaged in some misguided attempt to “unstick” the gas pedal.

      His statement that he reached down to try to life it up is demonstrably false, however.

    • 0 avatar

      On the subject of shifting a Prius into neutral at speed, apparently it isn’t as easy as you might think:

      http://www.mercurynews.com/mr-roadshow/ci_14664514

      “You must first push the shift lever to “N,” then hold it in that position and finally wait a second or two before the transmission shifts into neutral.”

      Not an intuitive action under high stress. And, the person who tested this action failed the first four times.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Joe; quite true; its not a typical transmission gate, but a joy stick, and you have to hold it for a bit before it goes into neutral, and stick itself doesn’t indicate if/when neutral has actually been engaged.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      If the brake pedal was stuck then the event recorder should be recording a constant signal for acceleration to some degree.

      I would say his phone performance during the 911 call was unconvincing. In the 24 minutes this occurred there were a ton of contradictions: he said he tried to get it to Neutral, he was told to turn the car off early on, but refused saying cars were passing by him “left and right” driving 90 mph , he says he tried to pull the pedal out, he conveniently managed to use the emergency brake immediately when patrol car was in front ready for impact to slow him down.

      The reality is Sikes was never really in danger, he’s not in a ballon, nor was he really in an ‘uncontrollable’ car. He’s in a Prius going 80-90mph on an interstate; which really isn’t insanely fast in the modern American left-lane driving context. He obviously knew that going into ‘neutral’ wouldn’t ‘flip the car’, hitting the emergency brake was possible, as was turning the car off (all of which was repeatedly suggested by the 911 operator).

      The incentives are obvious (as reported here);
      http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/ap-toyota-suits-could-top-3b/
      Billions in lawsuits, hundreds of millions in settlements from Toyota. I’m sure to many people a UA Toyota= Jackpot.

      @Joe Chiaramonte

      Getting the Prius into N is easy, you don’t even have to press the brakes:

      Demonstrated here, as well as the Fox affiliate link in the previous story posted in TTAC (end of video):
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II_03lbr-Jw
      http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/the-sikes-aftermath-lead-balloon-boy-going-down/

  • avatar
    210delray

    Very good analysis, thanks Paul. Trust TTAC to actually go through the trouble of renting the same make and model and then going out to simulate what Sikes may have done. Bravo!

    • 0 avatar

      Was this abuse really done to some unsuspecting Prius and then it was simply turned back over for some poor soul to drive or purchase? I would say that was unfair and unsafe and could put people in danger….no doubt with Toyota getting the blame……

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Great work, Paul. But please don’t let up now. This is a very big story despite what the deniers want to believe. God forbid that there should even be shades of gray here!

  • avatar

    Sounds like you’re saying taht early on in htis episode, the brakes could have stopped the car even wth wide open throttle. Seems to me that unless the brakes faded terminally awfully quickly, a normal person would have fairly quickly used them to stop the thing. Yeah, I hear what you’re saying about the tape–he did sound genuinely panicky, so maybe they did, but I think it’s a bit easier to suppose that he was trained in acting.

  • avatar
    bmoredlj

    Compare the brakes of most mainstream stock cars to those of a ZR1, F450, or Gallardo, and they look ludicrously undersized, yet they get the job done, day-in, day-out, as long as they’re maintained properly. Put a car with little brakes on a track and thrash it around, and those brakes will disintegrate much faster than high-performance cars bred for the track. A Prius is not a race car. Toyota is insistent that the brakes will stop the car, but they are assuming two things: one, the brakes of the Prius are properly maintained (it is the responsibility of the car’s owner to ensure this is the case) and two, the brakes are applied very specifically – that is, as firmly as humanly possible. If Sikes didn’t fulfill one or both of these assumptions, Toyota feels justified in claiming self-absolving human error, even if as Paul demonstrated with the rental Prius, the error is very slight (a matter of breaking pressure.) But cars rarely have wide margin of error…a slight turn of the wheel can lead to catastrophe in a second. It’s going to be hard to determine what Sikes was thinking, since he probably doesn’t know himself, having been overcome by fear of crashing. Whatever his true motives, if any, the experience was unquestionably harrowing.

  • avatar
    mcs

    A lot of information came out at the 3:30pm EDT press conference. Apparently Prius boy was alternating between the throttle and the brakes.

  • avatar

    Seems he knew exactly how hard to apply the brakes to put on a good show, then perhaps panicked when he realized by doing so, he had compromised his ability to stop at all.

    Or, I dunno. Maybe he is genuine and his heart is true. Or, perhaps he’s an unscrupulous moron. I still lean towards the latter.

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      Got to be a first Rob, I can’t help but to agree with your comment. As much as I enjoy seeing Toyota getting knocked of thier perch. This Sikes dude has zero credibility.

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    So let me get this straight. You’d have to be only lightly pressing on the brake while at WOT to keep it from cutting into the throttle. So he was unable to apply full braking pressure even once over a thirty mile drive while stuck at WOT.

    It’s entirely possible to wear brakes down to nothing under the above conditions, over thirty miles. How is anyone still even considering the possibility that he’s telling the truth? Especially when he thinks a stuck throttle plate would keep his pedal pinned to the floor… what a joke.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Nice work in going out to gather some facts, rather than staying in the armchair or just repeating other stuff.

    One interesting (to me) fact that emerges from all of this stuff — including the CR video demonstrating that the brakes do NOT bring a speeding car to a quick stop, if applied incorrectly — is that pumping the brakes is the formula for disaster here. Not only does this exhaust the vacuum-actuated power assist (since a WOT engine has no vacuum), but it is less effective than just standing on the brakes to stop the car.

    Of course it was many years ago since I took a driver training course (40+), but this is totally contrary to what people were (are?) taught about using the brakes in such courses — and I have seen this bad advice repeated in current publications and statements. People are taught to “pump the brakes to avoid a skid” and to pump the brakes in the event of an apparent brake failure (assuming, I suppose, that the cause of the failure is a partial loss of hydraulic fluid). Of course, with ABS in every modern car, pumping the brakes to avoid a skid is not necessary.

    So, it seems to me that a lot of these problems are being caused by people having been given the wrong instruction about the use of brakes in an emergency. And, I’m thinking, even if this is “pedal misapplication,” one is more likely to realize that one has “misapplied” the pedal if you don’t pump them up and down.

    But, I admit I haven’t tried this myself. Wearing snow boots that are particularly wide, I did manage to hit the throttle and brake simultaneously in my Honda Pilot. When the car surged forward, I realized immediately what I had done and repositioned my foot on the brake. What I did notice in that incident was that, the throttle responds pretty vigorously well before the brake pedal is depressed far enough to produce much braking action. So, I could imagine someone in a panic doing this repeatedly and thinking that they had “no brakes.” Perhaps a solution is to have the brake pedal rest in a higher plane than the throttle — at least on autotranny cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      this is where fore-aft and side-side offset design is critical as well as how progressive and proportional the pedals are during (especially simultaneous) application.

    • 0 avatar
      The Walking Eye

      Of course, with ABS in every modern car, pumping the brakes to avoid a skid is not necessary.

      Surprisingly, you can get low-end cars without ABS. I had a Cobalt stripper model w/o ABS, and I believe base Kias have ABS as an option. When I took driver’s ed in the mid 90s, it was still pump the brakes as ABS wasn’t popular. I certainly hope they don’t still teach only that or only ABS.

  • avatar
    tsofting

    Great analysis and article, Paul. Instead of just speculating about other people’s findings, you try a bit of reconstruction, great!

  • avatar
    SkiD666

    Whether or not Sikes is trying to scam Toyota, the reason Toyota is in this mess in the first place is that they keep going back to the argument that the cars ‘shouldn’t’ unintentionally accelerate and that their engineering is sound. In other words, we are right (Toyota) and you are wrong (customer).

    Well, as we have seen in the data diving here on TTAC, something is wrong with some of Toyota’s and Ford’s vehicles that leads to more reports than most other brands. Nobody knows what it is yet, but there is something wrong.

    Unlike the ergomonic Audi issue (driver error), there is some sort of a machanical/electronic issue at the root of this. It just happens to be so rare, it might never be found.

  • avatar
    hakata

    If indeed there were some electronic glitch that caused the throttle to remain open even though the pedal was fully returned up to the closed position, then he could have reached down and pulled the fully returned pedal, thinking it was stuck down. In that case, obviously, the pedal could not move any farther up.

    I think it is more likely, however, that he had been considering this scheme to get out of his Prius payments (and maybe make some money in a lawsuit), but not acted on it. Then one day, due to the stress of his obviously f’ed up life, he just impulsively decided to go for it, and whatever happened happened – death, fame, money, whatever – an OJ Simpson “I’m at the end of my rope” kind of moment.

    This would explain his real panic/fear/agitation as well as his obviously nonsense SUA story. Then, when it’s all over, he sees the cold truth that he can’t pull off another hoax on Oprah, so he declines all interviews, swears he won’t sue, and hides out.

  • avatar
    Billy Bobb 2

    The Toyota service info site states that conventional, hydraulic braking does not operate above 12 mph.

    Regenerative braking is used at higher speeds, with a device attached to the brake pedal which simulates conventional braking.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Can’t be true, and isn’t. Regen braking isn’t strong enough. And what I was doing clearly wasn’t regen-braking, since it depleted the battery. If it was regen, it would have been charging it.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Paul, is that true? I agree that battery depletion would lead to such an intuitive conclusion, but while intuition is a bonus for investigative inspriation, it also has to be challenged and confirmed.

      I don’t know the system in the Prius, but if the car is seeing simultaneous WOT and a high-degree of brake application, what is the net current flow? Positive from more out of the regen system than the electric drive system pulls, or negative due to the drive system pulling more than the regen system can generate?

      It also has to be considered that in a very non-standard WOT/high-brake situation that one or the other of the (brake vs. drive) systems is given some kind of priority, or that the system is not well conceptualized or tuned to deal with such a situation.

  • avatar

    Nice piece, Paul (though I’d hate to be the next customer who rents that ’08 Prius).

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      According to the dealership, the car still belongs to Sikes and he’s free to pick it up once the parts that NHTSA took are replaced.

      The event recorder showed the brakes and the accelerator being applied. He’s basically been busted by the event recorder. There’s nothing wrong with that car.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Nice work Paul. I hope the car rental people don’t read TTAC.

  • avatar
    tced2

    The reporter at Forbes (http://fumento.com/transport/toyota_hoax.html) reported that pulling on the stuck accelerator with your hand is very difficult. It even requires a person with very, very long arms. The reporter had to press his face against the dashboard to come near pulling on the accelerator with his hand. Mr. Sikes doesn’t look like he has unusual body proportions to do this maneuver.

    • 0 avatar
      ott

      Hold on… He does run a swing club, so maybe he’s more flexible than he looks. He might be able to achieve maneuvers that would shame a professional gymnist. Or stripper.

  • avatar
    Happy_Endings

    The problem with him not wanting to slam on the brakes is that he has likely done it before, perhaps even in his Prius. It would be highly unlikely that he had never slammed on the brakes at all in his life. He would have, at some point, been in a situation that necessitated that reaction. Once you do it once and survive, there isn’t anything psychologically preventing you from doing it again. It may be a little scary for some, but if it gets you to stop, you do it.

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      He is also a former member of the California Corvette Club. I guarantee you that he not only felt comfortable going 90 MPH plus… But he also knew how to burn up a set of brake pads and he had NO fear of slaming on the brakes hard. When you look at ALL of the evidence, in this case, it is hard to conclude anything other then this being a pure HOAX

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      He owned an AMG SL55 and Harley Softtail Classic as well.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      @ mcs

      Where did you get that he owned a AMG SL55 and Harley?

      Considering the enthusiast nature of Corvette, AMG SL55, and Harley I would consider that pretty damning. The AMG is a 500hp vehicle, I would consider it very suspect of the nonsense he was talking about in the press conference about putting the car into neutral would “flip the car”, and him not being able to handle a puny 110hp vehicle.

      Given the 24 minutes he had to slow the car down, I would have expected my senile elderly mother (God bless her) to do much better in a Prius; much less someone we would call an ‘enthusiast;.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I have an account on the Federal Judiciary’s PACER system which gives me legal access to U.S. Appellate, District, and Bankruptcy court records and documents. I pulled the information from his bankruptcy filing. They’re public records. I have a PDF copy of the bankruptcy filing. Everything.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      “I have an account on the Federal Judiciary’s PACER system which gives me legal access to U.S. Appellate, District, and Bankruptcy court records and documents. I pulled the information from his bankruptcy filing. They’re public records. I have a PDF copy of the bankruptcy filing. Everything.”

      .

      .

      Dude, what are you waiting for? Scan that sh!t in and POST it!

      I’m waiting for a TMZ-type website on this Sikes guy and Prius. Some hot chicks and swingers… 900 call-in lines… the infamous tranny joystick providing stick-joy for the full spectrum of trannies… that sorta thing.

      Toyota has always quietly marketed to alternative lifestyles, now’s the chance to leverage that groundwork.

  • avatar
    wiggles

    The submarginal application of the brakes (just enough to burn them up but not stop the car) seems plausible given how Prius drivers in general don’t appear to be knowledgeable about how their cars (or any car) work. The exception being hypermilers. In the SF bay area I go cycling all the time and meet other cyclist who won’t use their brakes (“I’ll flip!”) or shift gears (“too complicated”). I suspect these are the type of people that drive Prius.

    • 0 avatar
      LectroByte

      This guy also has a Corvette, probably not your stereotypical Prius driver… he was afraid to put it in neutral? Just too many things that don’t add up.

    • 0 avatar

      I would call them people who ride bicycles, not cyclists. Maybe they’re Critical Massholes.

      Actually, the thing that I see casual riders do wrong most often is their foot position. I tell folks to put the ball of their foot right over the pedal spindle and they immediately can tell the difference in terms of energy transfer.

  • avatar
    mcs

    Another thing that came out at the 3:30 press conference today was the mileage on the car. It has 55k miles. It’s a lease and he might be over the allowed miles. I had 7,200 at the time of the bankcruptcy, so it looks like he’s putting on about 27k per year. It’s just speculation I admit, but it may have been the motive.

    When Toyota was asked about whether they thought Sikes was lying, at one point they said that’s for other people to determine. I wonder who those “other” people might be.

    Anyway, I encourage everyone to try and find a link to the press conference. Listen to everything. Lots of new info.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Memo to self: Never rent a car to Paul Niedermeyer. :)

    PN writes, “Somehow, Sikes doesn’t strike me as a high-speed daredevil, willing to risk his life at ninety with completely shot brakes. Of course, that could also just as well confirm his stupidity.”

    People who are highly risk averse wouldn’t start a business called “Adult Swing Life LLC.”

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Like your approach. It is way too easy behind a keyboard to become an “expert.” I have to ask, Paul, did you do the right thing and fix the damage you willfully caused or did you return the car with wrecked brakes for the next unsuspecting customer to get into trouble with?

    • 0 avatar
      davejay

      An excellent question.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The weren’t “wrecked”; I didn’t do this for thirty miles like Sikes did, just enough to get them a bit smoky. In the old days, smoking brakes were a regular occurrence. That in itself does not connote damage. I checked the pads; plenty of meat left for another 100k miles: Prius brakes last incredibly long, under normal use!

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Nice work.

    I wonder if the nearly universal use of power assist brakes has anything to do with this? I bet a lot of people have never been in a car without power brakes. They are used to applying relatively little pressure and getting relatively quick results. It might feel to them as though they are really pushing hard on the brakes, when in fact, they are not.

    Those of us who learned to drive with non-assisted brakes know what a panic stop feels like – you try to push that pedal through the floorboard.

    • 0 avatar
      210delray

      That’s precisely why I always practice going without power steering or brakes by going down hills by shutting off the engine and purposely pumping the brakes to lose the vacuum assist. I used to do this on low-speed neighborhood streets, but now I have a great, legal way to do it. The driveway into my office parking lot is 0.4 miles long with a nice downhill grade for much of its length. The hardest part is making that final right-angle turn into a parking spot and stopping before you hit the curb. I only do this when the lot is mostly empty and we have no guests.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Maybe Sikes isn’t a good actor, maybe he really is a moron.

  • avatar
    davejay

    Very well done. Before I plant my flag in the ground, here’s a quick story: once upon a time when I was a teen, I had a RWD 1980 Buick Regal, and the brakes weren’t well-maintained (it was a used car, and money was tight.) I was in an icy parking lot, and trying to leave school for the day. The idle was high, because it was cold, and I had just started the car. As I moved across the lot with my foot off the brake and off the gas, everything seemed fine. Then, when I tried to stop, I stopped — almost. My car kept inching forward, because the rear brakes weren’t strong enough to stop the rear wheels from turning (remember, increased idle.)

    It was kind of ludicrous, because I was only going a few miles an hour, if even that; I was barely moving. I was not an idiot, but I was inexperienced, and I’d never learned how to drive properly (something I took care of a few years later.) So, rather than pop the transmission in neutral or shut off the car, I just kept hitting the brakes harder and harder and harder, in a panic, to no effect. Eventually (and it was quite a while!) I bumped nose-first into a snowbank, which stopped me. Then I went into park, revved the car to bring the idle back down (hooray carbuerator), backed up and went on my merry way (then got the brakes re-done once I had the money.

    So: sketchy brakes, high idle, incredibly low speed, inexperience, and panic. Instead of doing the thing I “knew” I would do in that circumstance, I did the instinctive thing, to no good purpose. We can safely assume that like most drivers, Mr. Sikes hasn’t been trained to drive properly, and given his now well-known financial circumstances, maintenance of his Prius was likely not a priority.

    Finally, I know from firsthand experience driving my wife to the hospital at 90mph in our minivan, and still being passed by other cars, that freeway traffic in Southern California regularly moves at/above 85mph, so anything related to “how could cars be passing him at 90mph” is a red herring.

    In light of the brake wear findings, then, my flag in the ground is thus:

    1. Mr. Sikes was driving a Prius with worn but still usable brakes, due to his financial circumstances;

    2. Something (unknown) made the car continue to operate as if the pedal was pushed, even though it was not;

    3. Mr. Sikes panicked, and began trying to split his focus between not hitting other cars, trying to stop his car, and trying to call the police, but not in a logical and well-conceived way (because he was panicking, more on this later);

    4. The same thing (unknown) that made the car continue to operate as if the pedal was pushed also prevented the failsafe from working when he floored the brake, or he was unwilling/unable to floor the brake sufficiently to trigger it, or the point of failure was outside the scope of the failsafe’s intention;

    5. Among his attempts to stop the car in a panic included reaching down and trying to lift the gas pedal (which couldn’t be lifted not because it was stuck floored but because it wasn’t pressed at all — presumably the root cause didn’t involve a physically-floored pedal), occasional and repeated pressing of the brake (causing the brakes to fade and be unable to stop the car), and occasional and repeated stomping on the gas (presumably to “unstick” it, even though it was not stuck);

    6. Any attempts he made to put the car in neutral or stop the car (if he did) involved momentary button presses and lever movements, not holding the button/lever in the required position for the required length of time;

    7. People in a panic — even well-trained ones — often forget their training, but a voice of authority can break through that panic. Mr. Sikes, upon being told over megaphone how to stop his car from accelerating (can’t remember if it was neutral or engine shutoff, doesn’t really matter) was finally able to break through his panic and do so;

    8. Once the car was no longer under power, the remaining brake lining from rear brakes, actuated by the emergency brake (which is applied to the rear wheels) was sufficient to slowly stop the car.

    That’s my assumption, and I’m sticking to it. It explains the phone call, the observed behavior, the material evidence (including the repeated brake/gas application noted in the data log) and leaves no holes other than what caused the car to accelerate in the first place, and why the failsafe *if* triggered didn’t work.

    • 0 avatar
      Facebook User

      So in other words, as long as God intervened and stuck Sikes’ pedal to the floor, his story makes perfect sense.

      I don’t understand why anyone would give this guy the benefit of the doubt. He has been convicted for insurance fraud twice before. That’s like letting your daughter go out with a twice-convicted sex offender. No, really, his story checks out.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      7. People in a panic — even well-trained ones — often forget their training, but a voice of authority can break through that panic. Mr. Sikes, upon being told over megaphone how to stop his car from accelerating (can’t remember if it was neutral or engine shutoff, doesn’t really matter) was finally able to break through his panic and do so;While I fall into the camp of those who think Sikes is a scammer, there is a great precedence for the above statement, that being the guy who flew his Cessna into DC restricted airspace a year or two after 9/11. IIRC, when the authorities got him on the radio (after the guy had been flying for some time into the forbidden area), he still didn’t believe he was in restricted airspace.

      It wasn’t until a couple of F-16s showed up that it finally got through this dimwits’s thick skull that he was most definitely in the wrong place and he made an abrupt U-turn.

      I’m not saying there is a great likelihood that this is what happened to Sikes, but it is conceivable.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    1. “…cycled the pedal repeatedly, like the SD CHP officer in the Lexus did, the relatively modest-sized Prius braking system could have begun to exhibit terminal fade fairly quickly, and the engine would have been able to overpower it to some degree.”

    This is in line with my previous assertion that warm brakes, depleted vacuum reservoir and widely opened throttle crossed with kinetic energy will bring a quite different result than what I assume were C&D’s best-case (first-full-application of brake) tests. Paul, based on your experience, do you still believe that modern brakes, under a worst-case (multiple-cycle-warm-friction-surface-minimal-assist-widely-opened-throttle) situation will easily stop a vehicle w/o requiring significant additional distance?

    2. What is the possiblity that Sikes was pulling at an accl pedal that was not at all depressed … a pedal in a speeding car, that is at 0% rotational angle may seem a lot like a pedal that is at 100% angle if one tries to pull it up by hand or by foot (under such a situation, one could easily come to the conclusion that the pedal was down and couldn’t be pulled up.)

    3. Despite reports of Sikes “buttocks off the seat standing on the pedal”, possiblity Sikes is a short-legged guy who likes to sit far back from the wheel and was thus unable to fully depress the pedal?

    4. Detent free shift mechanism? How silly is this?

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      He was alternately putting light pressure on the brakes and using the accelerator. Sounds to me like he was driving it as fast as he could.

      In a panic, he’d have laid onto the brakes. Why didn’t he try to apply the brakes hard? Why was he continuing to use the accelerator? 250+ times pressing brakes and accelerator over 30 minutes does not sound like panic. Why didn’t he just stomp on the damned brakes hard?

      He’s comfortable at speed. He owned an SL55 and Harley Soft Tail, so I don’t think he’s a panicky timid driver. An almost 500hp Mercedes Two seater is not something a timid driver is going to buy.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Looks can be deceiving … for instance, not every guy with race horse is a jockey, and not every guy with a trophy wife is, well, a jockey …

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703909804575123380572242938.html

    MARCH 15, 2010, 6:53 P.M. ET
    Toyota Disputes Prius Driver’s Account
    By ALEXANDRA BERZON And KATE LINEBAUGH

    But Toyota disputed that account.

    “We believe the vehicle was being driven with the front brakes lightly applied,” Bob Waltz, Toyota’s U.S. vice president for product, quality and service support, said at a press conference in San Diego.

    Mr. Waltz said data captured by the car indicated that the brakes and accelerator were depressed about 250 different times during the incident.

    Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said the driver would have had to repeatedly press and release the brakes, and press and release the accelerator, to defeat a brake-override system designed to prevent runaway acceleration. The system cuts off acceleration once the brakes are firmly pressed.

    “So the on-and-off action would have been required to keep the car going at any kind of high speed,” Mr. Michels said.

    Toyota said it tested the accelerator pedal and found it to be working properly. The front brakes showed severe wear and damage from overheating, which could come from repeated light application, Toyota said.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      “So the on-and-off action would have been required to keep the car going at any kind of high speed,” (Toyota’s) Mr. Michels said.
      And I’m here to tell you that’s not true. I had my foot on the brake continuously, at varying speeds up to ninety. It was just a matter of how much pressure I put on the brake.

    • 0 avatar
      leeharvey418

      I think you’re missing the point, Paul.

      Toyota is saying, and I have to believe correctly so, that to overcome the throttle cutoff that occurs at ~50% brake, you have to momentarily release both pedals. This was done repeatedly throughout the course of Sikes’ joyride.

      BTW- Does anybody else remember what ‘Sikes’ meant in the aliens’ language in the film Alien Nation?

    • 0 avatar
      CarPerson

      Mr. Waltz said data captured by the car indicated that the brakes and accelerator were depressed about 250 different times during the incident.

      Kind of blows Toyota’s assertion that the EDR only records data 5 seconds prior to air bag deployment and one second after with NO recording of the throttle and brake events. Somebody wasn’t thinking fast enough about what they were about to say and just hung Toyota. Second point is what reader did they use?

      Every trial that can possibly be re-opened that Toyota downplayed the EDR information at will now be re-opened.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    “We believe the vehicle was being driven with the front brakes lightly applied,” Bob Waltz, Toyota’s U.S. vice president for product, quality and service support.

    Does anybody see anything wrong with this statement?
    I’m not disagreeing with the general findings, but I have problems with the details. How does one apply the front brakes without applying the rear brakes? Just asking.

    • 0 avatar
      Sax1031

      Brake bias. Not sure on the exact numbers but the evidence seems to point to the fact that the Prius is biased towards the front brakes to stop the vehicle. If the bias was 50/50 then the rear brakes would have showed extensive wear like the front brakes did. Since it roasted the front brakes and the rear brakes were still in good shape I would have to say the car depends greatly on the front brakes.

      Also lends me to believe he was not applying much force to the brakes.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      From my understanding the Gen2 Prius uses drum brakes for the rear. Which would clearly exhibit a different fatigue pattern from the front. Logically, the braking system of the Prius would be designed with this in mind.

      You should, however, be asking more immediate and rational questions as a whole. Brakes are incredibly easy to change and replace, I, as well assume yourself, would be easily be able to wear down brakes, as well as replace them.

      This is ultimately the flaw in the article. You should not take, Sikes, nor Toyota’s, conclusions at face value. Nor give excuses nor caveats to either of them.

      Toyota, being that they had NHTSA, as well as a congressional oversight party looking over their investigation of this particular Prius, would have had a harder time faking conclusions, and would be under greater scrutiny.

      So logically, we are taking Sikes, with a dubious background (as reported on TTAC), versus Toyota, NHTSA, and congressional oversight’s rational. Given the third-party (and previously adversarial role) of these organizations, the logical conclusion is that this is a hoax.

      In fact, the only way to prove otherwise is a large array of conditions, variables, and caveats that would somehow support Sike’s claim. To do that, would essentially ignore Sike’s other contradictory statements as well as negate the overwhelming technical facts that disprove him.

    • 0 avatar
      CarPerson

      Yes, and it was reported the front brakes were completely, totally shot while the rear showed at the high end of normal wear.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Paul – try this one on for size – He was going to commit suicide to pay off his debts but backed out when the cop showed up. He didn’t bring anyone with him, he has a mountain of debt, he gets his details on how to do it from the Saylor Lexus news, doesn’t count on a quick response from the cops and now he has a very credible witness following along side him, something he didn’t anticipate or couldn’t learn from the news. What’s this guy’s recent medical history?. It would explain the long drive – he just keeps pumping the brakes and speeding up until he figures there is no way out. Does his none response on the phone coincide with the cop showing up?

  • avatar
    poohbah

    Excellent job TTAC /Paul. This is the first article I’ve read where the author actually did their homework. For an example of media coverage of the worst kind, check out the front page hack-job USA Today did on Toyota today.

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    I have no doubt Sikes is a scammer. I think this example is further proof you actually have to try to unintendedly accelerate in this model Prius.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    Having never driven, or even ridden in, a Prius, I did not know about the joystick “gearshift” until reading this. So let me get this straight: we have a car with an engine that cannot be instantaneously turned off and a transmission that cannot instantaneously disengage the driving wheels from the engine. On top of that we have a “brake override” that has been touted in a way that may lull drivers into a false sense of security, when actually an error in driver behavior that can be expected to happen in a panic situation may prevent its activation. Whether or not Sikes was pulling a hoax, this combo does not give me the warm fuzzies. At a minimum, in cars that do not have a conventional twist-key ignition switch AND do not have a mechanical automatic transmission shift linkage, we really need a kill switch on the left side of the dash that immediately cuts power to the engine ignition and the fuel pump (and the electric motor in hybrids).

    • 0 avatar
      LectroByte

      > Having never driven, or even ridden in, a Prius

      The Prius transmission lever is ridiculously easy-stupid to shift into neutral. I’ll gladly admit that the push-button ignition is gonna be confusing to some folks, but the transmission lever on the dash is one of the easiest-operating shifters I’ve ever dealt with. I might can understand how someone in a 350HP Lexus could get caught up in a runaway-throttle situation, but I’m just not seeing it in a Prius.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      I was going to post on this issue earlier and I agree with your criticism of the conceptulization and design of the various key safety systems which regulate the:
      – gross retardation of the drive systems (eStart/Stop button);
      – fine retardation of the drive systems (Brake);
      – gross distribution of the power from the drive systems (ePRNDL);
      – fine distribution of the power from the drive systems (eAccl Pedal);
      but I don’t agree this is a problem which demands the addition of an additional device, it is a problem that (back to the beginning) requires proper conceptualization and design of the electro-mechanical devices that are replacing their mechanical predecessors.

      Oh, and add adrenalin, shaky hands, fear and confusion (possibly exacerbated by a driver which was taught a technique become obsolete with things like ABS, mechatronics and hybrid drive technologies) to the mix and devices which seem to be familiar and easy to operate under normal conditions (and no time pressure), if not properly concieved and designed, can just as easily become unfamiliar and difficult to operate under unusual conditions.

    • 0 avatar
      CarPerson

      @LectroByte
      The Prius transmission lever is ridiculously easy-stupid to shift into neutral.

      Yes, as long as you know to push it to the center position between R and D, give it a moment to settle in, pull it over towards you and hold the damn thing there until it decides to actually shift into Neutral, at which point you can let go.

      Yea, OSHA would go for that about as far as you can throw a Prius.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Have to agree on the Prius shifter. It’s a joystick as Paul noted, and it’s very simple to operate. My son has a 2006 model, so I’m quite familiar with it. It always sits at its “rest” position unless you move it with your finger(s). A guy with large hands can easily reach it while holding the steering wheel.

    In any case, moving it to the left gives you neutral, left and down provides “drive,” directly down provides “brake,” which simulates “L” in conventional cars, and left and up provides reverse. All of these positions are clearly marked. It takes a little getting used to, but if Sikes racked up 55K miles, it should have been second nature for him to manipulate. Not having purposely selected neutral while moving in the car, I didn’t realize you have to hold the lever for a second or so for the wheels to disengage from the engine and electric motor. But this makes sense, as you wouldn’t want to inadvertently select neutral with a nudge.

    On the pushbutton start/stop feature, I agree that the 3-second hold is too long to shut down the engine at speed. I test drove a Genesis today, and Hyundai’s got that one nailed: when in motion, you either hold the button down for about 1 second, OR give the button 3 deliberate stabs.

  • avatar
    Daanii2

    If Sikes is not going to sue Toyota, why did he hire a lawyer?

  • avatar
    CatFan78

    Paul, sounds like you proved exactly what Toyota said happpened, and also validates what CHP observed.

    You drove the Prius with light brake (less than 50% which didn’t trigger the brake override). The vehicle went between 45 and 90. And after a few miles, you smell and see smoke from the brakes. Isn’t that EXACTLY what Toyota said happened? And that explains what the CHP officer saw.

    The fact that the Prius computer recorded 250 alternating accelerator and brake presses, tells us 100% this is a fraud. By the way for those confused, this is NOT an EDR recorder. This is the logging of the hybrid computer, which is why there is more information.

    And the other inconsistencies in Sikes story. Wouldn’t do what the 911 operator or police officer said (shift into neutral, car would flip LOL). Everyone wants brake override and the Prius has it, which greatly diminishes the possibility that Sikes is telling the truth. And all the background dirt on this guy. He said he just wanted a new car from Toyota to CNN last week. Wonder why – he is bankrupt and Toyota was getting ready to repossess the car. And now he has the same laywer representing the deceased CHP officers family. Why does he need a lawyer, if he’s not suing, or not afraid of being prosecuted for fraud?

    Toyota and other auto makers may have problems. But time to move on from this obvious fraud. The guy had motive, means, and opportunity. Sikes picked the wrong vehicle to try the hoax one, with the brake override, and the computer logging exactly what he did.

    Now that we know the Prius logs this information, should be easy to tell what happened to that crash in NY. Want to bet the computer just shows an accelerator press? Any takers?

    People who want to bash Toyota, so be it. But if you hang your bashing on this incident, you are only helping Toyota look good. Sikes is a fraud.

    Thanks Paul, you proved Sikes is a fruad, and explain what the CHP officer saw. Good work.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Thanks. I’m convinced now too!

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I wonder how many miles/year Sikes is allowed on his lease. In the bankruptcy papers from 2 years ago, he had 7200 miles on the odometer. Now he has 55k. Based on that he’s been putting on 23,900 a year. At that rate by December when he turns it in, it’s possible he could rack up another 17925 miles. So, he’s turning in his lease Prius with almost 73,000 miles.

      I don’t have a copy of the lease terms and I’m not even sure when it started, but it’s possible the mileage charges he’s facing are pretty high. Without all of the facts I can’t really be sure.

      Watch for a battle to start when they try to make him take the car back.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Thanks for going to the trouble of actually simulating the event.

    In posts here on TTAC I questioned Sikes’ credibility on the basis that people can’t smell their own overheated brakes. If you say you could smell them in the Prius, I accept that.

    Something else comes to mind. Whether or not Sikes was telling the truth, how many things that should really be reported are going unreported because people are afraid of all sorts of skeletons in their closets being dragged out for the public to view? This is why courts have strict evidence admissibility rules.

  • avatar

    According to the Salt Lakes Tribune “In Sikes’ case, Toyota said it found he rapidly pressed the gas and brakes back and forth 250 times, the maximum amount of data that the car’s self-diagnostic system can collect.”

    With this piece of news getting out, the number of Prius reports should drop quickly. This system seems to be a part of the Prius computer, not to be confused with other dedicated EDRs, which seem to record only seconds of data.

    Also, normal wear life of pads is between 30,000 and 50,000 miles. With 55,000 on the clock, let’s hope Sikes has recently changed his pads. Nonetheless, with this type of driving, I can ruin brand new pads in 15 minutes. What we’ll see next: car goes into limp mode once wear indicators make contact. Blame it on Jim.

  • avatar

    Time to give this Sikes guy the thing he fears most-a trip back to obscurity…
    This Toyota gas pedal issue is getting sidetracked by one guy and lazy media.
    At least this article took the time to give us a hands-on perspective.Other media outlets should take some notes.

  • avatar
    Happy_Endings

    It’s not just that he hired a lawyer, it’s that the lawyer is saying Sikes isn’t asking for anything. The fact of the matter, he is! He’s asking for a new car, one that won’t cost him a dime! It’s the same as asking for $25,000 in cash! As others have said, his Prius may soon he re-possessed by Toyota. Because of his bankruptcy a few years, there’s no way he could afford the payments on another car unless he paid cash for it. His credit score is probably in 450-500 range.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    Re: “Mr. Waltz said data captured by the car indicated that the brakes and accelerator were depressed about 250 different times during the incident.

    Kind of blows Toyota’s assertion that the EDR only records data 5 seconds prior to air bag deployment and one second after with NO recording of the throttle and brake events. Somebody wasn’t thinking fast enough about what they were about to say and just hung Toyota. ”

    That was my thought too. It didn’t make sense to me that Toyota, which is notoriously cost conscious, would put in a nearly useless EDR that was difficult to access data from.

    If the EDR records that much data, then Toyota has UI data it isn’t making available to government inspectors or the general public. Seems like there’s a hidden door to the EDR data storage.

    • 0 avatar

      Fred: From what we know, the Prius has a different computer. It stores much more events internally.

      The EDRs used on other Toyota cars supposedly store only a small number of events. Why, I have no idea. Does not make sense. Memory is dirt cheap. Why cost conscious Toyota equips its cars with EDRs, but has only one prototype reader, also does not make sense,

  • avatar
    buzz phillips

    It appears that Sikes and his lawyer are looking for a big payday!

  • avatar
    Boff

    Why is PN trying so hard to exculpate Sikes? The “experiment” merely illuminates how easy it would have been for him to simulate UA whilst not actually triggering the over-ride system. His accelerator fib alone proves, to me anyways, that this incident was staged.

    As far as his acting ability goes, having driven a woman in labor to the hospital, I would judge Sikes’ apparent panic levels as extremely mild. He should keep his day job as a flim-flammer and leave the emoting to Octomom.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Scary that we are relying on joysticks, electronics and electric steering and brakes to do what conventioanl and more reliable cable or hydraulic equipment used to do. This car is a death trap no matter how you slice it or rather a fashion statement death trap. No wonder I’m seeing so many traded into to Chevy, Ford, Nissan and Honda dealerships. If I were Sikes I would avoid this type of car altogether as it’s false economy.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      On what planet are they trading in Prii on Chevy’s?

      You are very impressionable if seeing this clown’s story makes you think that a Prius is unsafe.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    ponchoman49,

    I couldn’t find the reference I wanted but this, although a bit dated, may interest you:

    http://editorial.autos.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=435759

    That’s a news item on the IIHS actual fatality ratings for vehicles in model years 2001 through 2004, published in 2007. You’ll note – whoopee! – that Chevy placed one model in the top (safest) 10. You’ll also note – uh-ohhh! – that Chevy placed three models in the bottom (deadliest) 10.

    You might also note that Toyot placed 4 models in the top 10 and none in the bottom 10.

    Now, what were you saying?

    By the bye, that one model Chevy placed in the top 10… It’s an Astrovan, isn’t it? You know, I’ll bet 98% of the Astrovans from model years 2001 through 2004 were placed into fleets and have stickers on the back that say, “How’s my driving? Call 1-800-I-GET-FIRED to Report Any Concerns.”

    I’m thinking that might just skew the stats for the Astrovan a bit. What do you think?

    If I can find the full report, we can go over it together. Whaddya say?

  • avatar
    OC CA Hybrid

    Thank you, Paul, for having the ability to test out the story, rather than just jumping to conclusions for one side or the other.
    Whether or not Sikes is telling the truth about his incident, there have been other people who have experienced sudden acceleration problems with the Prius. This article by Paul Knight (“Devil Inside”) was published almost a year ago:
    http://www.ocweekly.com/2009-04-23/news/prius
    Would you like to test any of these other scenarios?


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