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.