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Could Runaway Prius Have Been Faked?

Posted: Mar 12, 2010 10:28 a.m.

Yesterday we told you about doubts Edmunds Inside Line raised about a California man who claimed his Prius had raced out of control. Today, more people are looking into the story.

Jalopnik thinks James Sikes, the man in the incident, may have had a motive: "James Sikes, the San Diego runaway Toyota Prius driver, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and now has over $700,000 in debt. According to one anonymous tipster, we're also told he hasn't been making payments on his Prius," they write, adding, "it's potential motivation for wanting to find an out — any out — on paying for the vehicle."

Jalopnik's questions about Sikes' motives add to questions Inside Line raised about the story.  Inside Line pointed out that it's relatively easy to shift the Prius into neutral, even at highway speeds.  They also found it odd that though he claimed to be doing well over 90, Sikes managed to avoid an accident on a California highway for over 20 minutes -- while panicking.

The Associated Press says the runaway Prius story may be reinforcing itself. "Experts on consumer psychology say the relentless negative media attention Toyota has received since the fall makes it much more likely that drivers will mistake anything unexpected — or even a misplaced foot — for actual danger." AP adds, "In just the first 10 weeks of this year, 272 complaints have been filed nationwide for speed control problems with the Prius, according to an Associated Press analysis of unverified complaints received by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By comparison, only 74 complaints were filed in all of last year, and just eight the year before that."

Autoblog Green comments, "We'll let the authorities investigate these latest cases and determine as best they can what happened there, but we also want the madness to calm down. Problems should be fixed, sure, but just because some people have problems doesn't mean everyone does."

The day after the Prius incident in California, according to reports, a Prius accelerated suddenly in New York. In that incident, a woman was pulling out of her driveway when she says the accelerator stuck, causing the Prius to surge forward into a stonewall. No one was hurt in the incident.

However, Richard Schmidt, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes in the New York Times that the kind of driveway scenario the woman describes is a prime example of driver error being mistaken for a mechanical problem. Shchmidt has spent much of his career investigating cases of unintended acceleration for automakers.  His work has found that reports of unintended acceleration "typically happened when the driver first got into the car and started it. After turning on the ignition, the driver would intend to press lightly on the brake pedal while shifting from park to drive (or reverse), and suddenly the car would leap forward (or backward). Drivers said that continued pressing on the brake would not stop the car; it would keep going until it crashed."  Schmidt adds, "Drivers believed that something had gone wrong in the acceleration system, and that the brakes had failed."

When engineers would examine the cars, they'd find nothing was wrong.  Schmidt writes, "Several researchers hypothesized how a driver, intending to apply the brake pedal to keep the car from creeping, would occasionally press the accelerator instead. Then, surprised that the car moved so much, he would try pressing harder. Of course, if his right foot was actually on the accelerator, the throttle would open and the car would move faster."  The result? "This would then lead the driver to press the ‘brake’ harder still, and to bring about even more acceleration. Eventually, the car would be at full throttle, until it crashed. The driver’s foot would be all the way to the floor, giving him the impression that the brakes had failed."

Of course, Schmidt's reasoning doesn't explain the reports of the runaway Prius in California, and it doesn't prove that nothing was wrong with the Prius in New York.  But, driver error plus increased publicity may explain some of the spike in reports of problems with Toyota.

Check out the latest Toyota recall news and information, including how the company's recent troubles affect our rankings. If you're in the market for a new car, check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars as well as this month's best car deals.