March 12, 2010

AMBULANCE RACER:

Toyota Hybrid Horror Hoax (Michael Fumento, 3/12/10, Forbes Online)

Where to begin?

Well, the patrol car didn’t slow down the Prius; the bumpers never touched. The officers used a loudspeaker to tell Sikes to use the brakes and emergency brake together. He did; the car slowed to about 55 mph. Sikes turned off the engine and coasted to a halt. He stopped the car on his own.

There wasn’t anything wrong with the transmission or the Prius engine button either.

Over a 23-minute period the 911 dispatcher repeatedly pleaded with Sikes to shift into neutral. He simply refused and then essentially stopped talking to her except to say that he thought he could smell his brakes burning.

The 2008 Prius has its gear box mounted expressly to allow the shift to be flicked while keeping both hands on the wheel. There’s not an easier shifter made.

"I thought about" shifting into neutral, Sikes said at a televised press conference the day after the incident. But "I had never played with this kind of a transmission, especially when you’re driving and I was actually afraid to do that." Sikes, who has driven the car for two years, also said "I figured if I knocked it over [the gear knob] the car might flip."

He told CNN, "I was afraid to try to [reach] over there and put it in neutral. I was holding onto the steering wheel with both hands—94 miles an hour in a Toyota Prius is fast." Yet for much of the ride he had a phone in one hand. And this is especially interesting: Most gear shifts are on the console, requiring the hand to drop to shift. But, as this image shows, in the 2008 Prius it’s located on the dash within inches of the steering wheel precisely to allow shifting without the hand leaving the wheel. I sat in one and did it easily. Another unique feature of the shift is that it’s amazingly simple, with only forward, reverse, neutral and "B." The express purpose of "B" is to slow the car while preserving the brakes, as in a steep descent. Sikes actually could have shifted into two different gears.

Moreover, why would Sikes describe shifting gears as somehow "playing with the transmission." And apparently he’s never shifted while the vehicle was moving and thought somehow a gear shift could flip his car.

The dispatcher also pleaded with him repeatedly to hit the ignition button. Again, he says he was simply afraid to. [...]

Now here’s the potential smoking gun: Sikes told the reporters that "I was reaching down and trying to pull up on the gas pedal. It didn’t move at all; it was stationary." That’s awfully daring for somebody who insisted he didn’t even want to take a hand off his steering wheel, notwithstanding that he did so to hold his phone.

I tried to imitate Sikes’ alleged effort in a 2008 Prius. From the front bottom of the steering wheel to the front bottom of the accelerator in up position it’s 28.5 inches; while fully deployed it’s 2.5 inches farther away. I have average-length arms (33-inch shirt sleeve) and no gut. But even though the steering wheel was as flush to the dashboard as it goes, it prevented me from all but touching the accelerator in the up position.

To reach behind a deployed accelerator and get any kind of a grip you’d have to add at least three more inches. In my case, it required squashing my face against the radio and completely removing my eyes from the road. Only the tallest men could physically do what Sikes claimed he did and no press accounts refer his being exceptionally tall. But to settle this issue (albeit not the others), Sikes would simply have to sit in his Prius and show he could reach behind the pedal while it was fully depressed. Why has nobody asked him to do so? Moreover, even for an orangutan it would be an incredibly awkward move for somebody afraid to pop a car into neutral or hit the ignition button.

So why did he do it? Sleuth work at the Web sites Jalopnik.com and Gawker.com reveals that Sikes and his wife Patty in 2008 filed for bankruptcy and are over $700,000 in debt. Among their creditors is Toyota Financial Services for a lease on a 2008 Toyota Prius, with value at time of bankruptcy of $20,494. The Jalopnik Web site shows a copy of Toyota’s secured claims form, though when Jalopnik questioned Sikes by e-mail he denied being behind on his Prius payments.

Sikes also has a history of filing insurance claims for allegedly stolen items that are slowly coming to light. In 2001 he filed a police report with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department for $58,000 in stolen property, including jewelry, a prosumer mini-DV camera and gear, and $24,000 in cash, according to Fox40 in Sacramento. His bankruptcy documents show a 2008 payment of $7,400 for an allegedly stolen saxophone and clothes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 12, 2010 8:44 PM
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