Toyota Motor Corp. was quiet last week when James Sikes told reporters how the gas pedal got stuck on his 2008 Prius, leading him on a wild ride on a Southern California freeway.
Now the Japanese automaker is talking at length about how its tests don't support Sikes' version of events, and the driver is quiet.
Toyota says its tests showed the car's gas pedal, backup safety system and electronics were working fine. It was unable to replicate the stuck gas pedal that Sikes reported.
The automaker said Monday that it found Sikes 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. That account appears to contradict Sikes' statements -- backed by the California Highway Patrol -- that he slammed the brakes, even lifting his buttocks off the seat.
Toyota officials said they believed Sikes hit the pedals lightly, which would have prevented a brake-override system from kicking in. Under the Prius design, engine power is cut if the brake pedal is pressed with moderate force.
Toyota stopped short of saying that Sikes fabricated his story.
"We have no opinion on his account, what he's been saying, other than the scenario is not consistent with the technical findings," spokesman Mike Michels said at a news conference.
The episode March 8 was among the highest-profile headaches Toyota has suffered in recent months. It recalled more than 8 million cars and trucks worldwide because gas pedals can become stuck in the down position or be snagged by floor mats.
Dozens of Toyota drivers have reported problems even after their cars were supposedly fixed.
The company had no explanation for discrepancies with Sikes' account but confirmed the brakes were overheated and the pads worn. Bob Waltz, vice president of product, quality and service support at Toyota Motor Sales USA, said the front brakes were "metal to metal."
Toyota said it believes a CHP officer's account that he smelled burning brakes while guiding Sikes on the freeway. Officials said repeatedly pressing the pedal could have overheated the brakes but were unclear why the car didn't stop sooner than it did.
"That is the puzzling aspect of this," Michels said in an interview. "All we know are the engineering facts. We looked at all the components, they all work."
Toyota said its tests showed the car's electronics were working fine.
"If there were some kind of electronic problem, you would think it might actually stay permanent," Michels said. "When your TV goes on the fritz, when electronic stuff goes on the fritz, it doesn't just do it once and never do it again."
Sikes, 61, has said his car raced to 94 mph on Interstate 8 east of San Diego. He said he reached down with one hand to try to pull the pedal back, while keeping the other hand on the wheel. He called 911 but did not respond to repeated instructions from the dispatcher to throw the car into neutral.
The CHP officer eventually helped bring the car safely to a stop by telling him over a loudspeaker to hit the emergency brake and foot brake simultaneously.
Sikes spoke to reporters shortly after the incident but has since kept a low profile. He did not respond to phone messages Monday.
John Gomez, Sikes' attorney, said Monday that he would not comment on the episode until a government investigation was complete. Gomez has noted previously that Toyota has never been able to replicate stuck accelerator.
"This problem is sort of a ghost in the machine that is the Toyota system," he said Sunday. "It doesn't leave a fault code, it doesn't leave a footprint, and you can't make it happen upon demand."
During the incident,
, which is how CHP finally located him.
and try to shut it off. Sikes shook his head in response which
took to indicate that that was not successful. The officer was able to drive along the Prius' driver's side. Using the loudspeaker, Neibert instructed Sikes to apply the brake pedal and the emergency brake at the same time.
Neibert moved his patrol car in front of the Prius and tried to match the speed when he noticed the vehicle slowed down to 50 – 55 mph.
The Prius finally came to a stop in the number one lane with the engine shut off, Neibert said.
He placed his patrol car in front of the vehicle in case it tried to take off again. The Prius engine was shut down at that point.
"He was visibly shaken and seemed to be in shock on an adrenaline rush having to deal with the situation," said Neibert.
Neibert said he checked the accelerator and brake pedal and they both appeared to be in the normal resting position as if the vehicle was parked. The floor mat, a non-rubber mat, appeared to be in its normal position, he said.
Neibert said he not only could smell the brakes from the Prius but also witnessed Sikes physically lifting his body to apply pressure on the brakes.
Skes said he was standing on the brake pedal, trying to slow down.
"I was on the brakes pretty healthy," Sikes said. "It wasn't stopping, it wasn't doing anything to it, just kept speeding up, just kept going, and I called 911 right away, and they were trying to tell me what to do, but I couldn't hold the phone and the steering wheel properly at the same time, so I just kept trying my methods, dropped the phone and it just kept going faster. I just stayed on the brakes as much as I could until finally they started smelling really bad and I had metal sounds coming in the car."
The 2008 Prius is subject to a recall for floor mats but not sticky accelerators.
While investigators from Toyota and NHTSA reviewed the Prius during the same two days, a Transportation Department official said their investigations are separate.
"We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement.