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Analysis: Runaway Prius Incident

Will We Ever Know What Happened To That Prius?
Will we ever know exactly what happened to the Toyota Prius that allegedly sped out of control on a local freeway last week? And, if the findings do show that there was a malfunction in the car, what are the legal ramifications. We speak to experts on car electronics and the law.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Was it a hoax or was it real? People, especially in San Diego and especially Toyota drivers, have been asking that question for days. This week, the Toyota Corporation held a nationally televised news conference calling the claims of motorist James Sykes inconsistent with the data they've gotten from his car.

Sykes says he was unable to stop his 2008 Toyota Prius earlier this month as he sped along Interstate 8 at speeds up to 94 miles an hour. He called 911 which documented his apparently frantic efforts to stop the car from accelerating. Here with more is KPBS reporter Tom Fudge. And good morning, Tom.

TOM FUDGE (KPBS Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: At that news conference on Monday, what did Toyota officials say happened with James Sykes’ Prius?

FUDGE: Well, they don’t know. But their main point was something that you have already stated. The executive, Mike Michaels with Toyota Motor Sales USA, said Toyota believes there are significant inconsistencies between the account of the event of March 8th—that was Mr. Sykes’ ride—and the findings of this investigation. Basically, they said that they have, after extensive testing of that Prius, they weren’t able to find anything wrong with it that would explain what supposedly allegedly happened to Mr. Sykes. They tested the brakes. The brakes seemed to work. They tested putting it into neutral and that worked, that did slow down the car and disengaged the drive train as it’s supposed to. They also tested what they call the car’s brake override system, which shuts off the engine when the brake and accelerator are both depressed at the same time. That was working. So they don’t know. They say they don’t know what happened to James Sykes but they believe that his car is absolutely fine.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Toyota did mention that the front brakes of Mr. Sykes’ car had extreme wear. What would have caused that? Did they mention any reason for that?

FUDGE: They did say that the front brakes were very, very thin. As a matter of fact, they were metal on metal. And their experts in this kind of – Toyota’s experts in this kind of thing said that the thing that would explain that would be very frequent but light braking. In fact, the car’s recording mechanism, its computer, showed that James Sykes was – hit the brakes 250 times during his 24-mile drive but they say that if he had pressed the brakes hard, it would’ve engaged the back brakes as well, not just the front brakes and it would’ve stopped the car. And this is very much contrary to what James Sykes said; he said he was braking very, very hard. As a matter of fact, a CHP officer who pulled up next to him during this wild ride said it appeared as though Mr. Sykes was actually standing—literally standing—on the brakes trying to get the car to stop. Toyota says that doesn’t make any sense based on their examination. And so this is kind of the mystery that we have.

CAVANAUGH: Now it’s not just Toyota who is doing tests on the car, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also done some tests on the car. What is NHTSA saying?

FUDGE: What they are saying is essentially the same thing that Toyota is saying, that so far they have not been able to find anything that would explain the scenario that was given by James Sykes. They are not done with their investigation. As a matter of fact, Toyota says they’re not done with their investigation either but at – so far, they cannot explain, neither the feds nor Toyota can explain, why this car would’ve motored out of control, as Sykes explained.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tom, you happen to be a Prius driver, I know.

FUDGE: Yes, that’s right. I drove it out to La Jolla this morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now can you relate to some of what Mr. Sykes has described about the incident and his problem stopping the car or finding neutral or anything like that?

FUDGE: Yes, I can relate to some of that. The thing about putting the car into neutral, I think anybody who drives an automatic transmission car knows that neutral is a gear that you don’t ever really use. You don’t really have a reason to put it into neutral unless there is an emergency. So I think for any driver of an automatic transmission car, finding neutral might be tricky in an emergency situation. And with the Toyota, the shifter—it’s hard to explain if you’ve never driven a Toyota—but the shifter’s a little bit funny. When you put it into gear, the shifter doesn’t stay in that position, it pops back to the center. And it does this when you put it into drive, when you put it into reverse and when you put it into neutral. Also, I have found, since I have a Prius, I tested putting my car into neutral as the car was moving, and what I found is that if you pop it into the gear very quickly, it won’t take. You have to hold it there for half a second. So I can imagine a person in Mr. Sykes’ position popping it in very quickly and it not taking and him thinking that neutral doesn’t work. Now, Mr. Sykes has told reporters that he didn’t put it into neutral, he didn’t push the big, black button they have in the Prius to turn off the engine, he says he didn’t do that because he was afraid that it, you know, something radical might happen, that the car might stop immediately and flip over. So that’s what we hear from him.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mr. Sykes, of course, as we know, has hired an attorney to represent him. How has attorney John Gomez responded to these very public findings or at least partial findings by Toyota?

FUDGE: Well, he’s been quoted as having said that these tests rarely, if ever, reproduce the event that actually happened on the road, so his point is, well, maybe they weren’t able to reproduce it but it happened and if they’d been there in the car with James Sykes, they would’ve seen it. That seems to be what he is saying. We don’t know why James Sykes has hired this attorney. Obviously, there are people out there who have, you know, the hypothesis that he wants to sue Toyota and make a lot of money. Both Mr. Sykes and his attorney say he has no intention of suing, so that’s what we know at this point.

CAVANAUGH: And, I wonder, Tom, if you can even answer this, but where do we go from here? I’ve heard that Toyota is now in the process of testing another allegedly out-of-control car back in New York. Does – Is this testing just going to continue?

FUDGE: Well, this testing is going to continue as it needs to continue. Toyota is dealing with quite a number of lawsuits even if they do never get sued by James Sykes. And they are definitely playing defense and this is what we saw at Monday’s press conference, is they wanted to come out and make very strong statements saying that they have found absolutely nothing wrong with Mr. Sykes’ car and it was not one of the cars that – well, it was a car that was recalled for a floor mat but they say they looked into that and they have no intentions at this point of recalling any other cars and so they’re definitely playing defense. They say they will continue their investigation. NHSTA says they’ll continue their investigation, so I guess we just have to wait and see what comes from that, if anything.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much, Tom, for speaking with us this morning.

FUDGE: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: That’s KPBS reporter Tom Fudge. And we continue talking about Toyotas now, talking about the tests being done on Toyota vehicles in the wake of recalls and acceleration claims. I’d like to welcome Dr. Ingolf Krueger is professor of Computer Science at UCSD and Dr. Krueger directs the university's Service-Oriented Software and Systems Engineering Laboratory. Dr. Krueger, welcome back to These Days.

DR. INGOLF KRUEGER (Director, Service-Oriented Software and Systems Engineering Laboratory, University of California San Diego): Thanks for having me back.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What questions do you have about the way Toyota is looking into these reports? Are you skeptical of the motorist’s claims? Or are you skeptical of the company’s results? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Dr. Krueger, based on what you’ve heard and based on what Tom Fudge was telling us and all the news reports we’ve heard, what do you make of this story?

DR. KRUEGER: It’s a very fascinating story and apparently very distressing to the people involved. We have very little information right now how it’s going to develop. We have very little information on what happened to the car. There’s mechanical problems the companies are looking into or the mechanical features such as brake pads. As Tom said, they were worn down to metal on metal, and there’s a variety of other elements that NHTSA and Toyota are looking at, including the readings of the various electronic control units that we talked about last time on your show. And there’s – this is basically the evidence that is being looked at right now.

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us a little bit more about – I mean, personally I was fascinated to hear that Toyota can actually figure out how many times a brake was stepped on or was deployed during a certain time span. Tell us a little bit more about the actual tests that are being conducted on this car.

DR. KRUEGER: So when we talked the last time, I already mentioned that a typical car today has 15, 30, to 80 so-called electronic control units, which are little computers that sit inside your car, literally little black boxes that all control various functions of the vehicle and I mentioned already that today about 90% of all innovations are done by software in these little black boxes. And each of these boxes has a little bit of memory in it, just like your computer at home, or today your cells phones have memory in which you can store files, these black boxes have memory in them and they do actually record a little bit of the state of these electronic boxes. So, for instance, in your motor or – you have a black box that controls your motor in almost all of these cars, and it will record how often times you hit the maximum speed of your car, for instance, and this is information car companies can look at to see how the cars perform, how they are driven, and so on and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: A lot has been made of the fact that even with all this information it’s extremely difficult for these Toyota investigators to recreate whatever has happened in order – if, indeed, it has happened in this case, to make the car accelerate. Could it be that these little black boxes only have tiny little bits of information and they don’t put – to get – they don’t put the information together in any way that’s really useful?

DR. KRUEGER: That’s a very good point. In fact, each individual box will have only a limited purview of what happened in the other boxes. You have to imagine that all the little electronic control units are connected by means of wires, by means of what we call communication process, so that the information they exchange actually travels over these wires. And now a lot of the problems that we find in cars today comes from the interplay, from this communication exchange which, at least on the wire, is lost the moment you turn off the car. And so there is some – there is some bits and pieces of information that you will find stored in the electronic control units but a lot about the event sequence that led up to the alleged event is lost.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I’m speaking with Dr. Ingolf Krueger. He is professor of Computer Science at UCSD. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Sophie is on the line from Poway. And good morning, Sophie. Welcome to These Days.

SOPHIE (Caller, Poway): Good morning. I wanted to report that I could empathize with Mr. Sykes’ experience but in a different car. I had an F-350 truck, diesel, that took off on Highway 56, went up to 100 miles an hour, and I was finally able to stop it by both feet on the brake, the emergency brake, throwing it into neutral. The other day, I was following the AP reports on this and in the 18,500 comments in there, there is a report from a mechanic who can explain what has happened in the Prius and what happened in my truck. And I just thought you’d like to know that there may be an explanation for all this.

CAVANAUGH: Do you drive the truck any more, Sophie?

SOPHIE: No. This happened about two years ago. But it never happened again after that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for calling in. Dr. Krueger, tell us a little bit about the Toyota Prius. What are some of the things that make that – this particular car, the Prius, unique?

DR. KRUEGER: The Prius has – is a hybrid vehicle. I mean, this is the feature is it bought for. It has a very efficient way of working with the gas that you put in. It translates some of the motion it has into electric energy. In fact, it brakes using the generators that turn them into dynamos, if you will, into electric energy as you slow down. And so it uses some of the energy of your forward motion to recharge the batteries that it uses for part of the driving capability. So the electronics in the Prius are very sophisticated in translating between the injection engine that you still have in the car and the energy it produces, and the energy that comes out of the battery pack which sits in the – below the trunk, basically.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue to talk about the Toyota Prius and other reports of accelerations in Toyota cars and other cars, and take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the claims of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, and my guest is Dr. Ingolf Krueger. He’s professor of Computer Science at UCSD. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Before we take another call, though, Dr. Krueger, before we went to the break, you told us what was different about the Toyota Prius. What is the same about Toyota Priuses in terms of electronic software and just general electronics as – in connection with other Toyota vehicles? What do they have in common?

DR. KRUEGER: So all vehicles today, be they Toyotas, be they Priuses, be they Fords, GMs, they have a number of these electronic control units in them and more and more they take over functions that previously were provided mechanically and provide them by software. And you find in a lot of the cars that the most intriguing example that most people interact with on a daily basis and really know that they’re interacting with it, is their central locking system, like we talked about last time. But there’s other systems that move your carseat, that control the A/C, that control your navigation systems, and those are pretty much similar across all these various different cars.

CAVANAUGH: I – And one more question, there’s been a lot said about the fact that if you depress the accelerator and the brake at the same time, the car should stop. Is that correct?

DR. KRUEGER: It depends on the type of car.


DR. KRUEGER: In fact, the brake override system that we are talking about now is installed in a large number of vehicles in Europe and in some of the cars that are sold in the United States and some of them in the Toyota line as well, not in all of them. So this brake control override that you get when you depress the accelerator and the brake at the same time is not available in all cars.

CAVANAUGH: But it is in the Prius.


CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s take another – a call. Eric is calling us from North Park. Good morning, Eric. Welcome to These Days.

ERIC (Caller, North Park): Good morning, Maureen. Good morning, Professor.

DR. KRUEGER: Good morning.

ERIC: I’m a Toyota Corolla owner. I’ve owned my car for about four years and the reason I chose Corolla was my brother, who’s a diehard car fan, said that Toyota and Honda are the two best car companies out there at the time. That was eighty – that was in ’06. And I’ve looked at the history of Toyota and I’ve had this car now for four years. I’ve never had a problem with this car. The brakes are the – the usual wear and tear that has to happen. But I just wanted to say that all this hype about Toyota, yes, car companies are questionable when they’re trying to protect their interests and their sales, let’s be honest. But I will say this, that in my experience of all the people I do know who have Toyotas, they’ve never had a problem other than the usual wear and tear. So it’s unfortunate these incidences have happened but I think that there should be – and by the way, I do not work for Toyota.


ERIC: I should say.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.

ERIC: I don’t want to – I’m a starving student. And so I just wanted to say that Toyota has a long reputation of positive outlook in its community and not just from its quality but how they behave in the community itself such as giving back and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Eric, thank you. Thank you for that, and I’m sure Toyota could use those nice words right about now. Thanks for your phone call very much. Let’s go to Ricardo in Old Town. Good morning, Ricardo. Welcome to These Days.

RICARDO (Caller, Old Town): Good morning. My comment is related to, you know, being able to replicate the acceleration of the vehicle and how difficult that is. A few years – back in the early ‘90s, my brother owned, I think it was a ’92 Ford Explorer and that vehicle used to accelerate all the time. Well, not all the – Well, it was just like a random thing. Sometimes we’d just be driving, you know, down the street to the supermarket, other times we were driving, you know, over to Arizona where our folks live, and the vehicle would accelerate and it was really, really scary. I mean, it never got to the point where we called the police or anything like that but it would accelerate for a few seconds, sometimes even a minute, where the, you know, it just kept going faster and faster and nothing we could do could stop it. We would, you know, pump the brakes, you know, nothing would work. And then we would take it back to the dealer, they would keep it for a week, they would drive it around town, and it would never happen. And they would give us back the vehicle saying, oh, you know what, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not accelerating like you guys claim, and then wouldn’t you know, like a week later it would happen again. But we would take it back again to the dealer and they would look at it, they’d keep it for a few days, and they were never able to replicate that so I…

CAVANAUGH: Ricardo, thank you for that story. And, Dr. Krueger, this, I think, points out something that a lot of stories now are surfacing about people who have had problems with all sorts of cars sort of…

DR. KRUEGER: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …with this sudden acceleration. Is this a problem that’s been going on for a while that we just haven’t heard about?

DR. KRUEGER: It may well be. And the reason the events also bring this problem to the forefront of many people. Many people, for the first time, see that there is a problem that could be actually car-related rather than to their driving behavior, and also driving behavior changes as you learn about such incidents. And so we see a lot of reports coming forward now and they all have to be looked at very carefully in how far they actually relate to the electronics or the mechanics of the vehicle. We heard in one of the two earlier callers, we heard that some of the problems actually emerged in cars that may not have had as sophisticated electronics as the Priuses have today, for instance. And I think one of the callers also pointed out it’s important to see that the incidents, although now numerous, are still in a tiny fraction of what is actually happening on the roads today. So I read a report in the New York Times a few days back where somebody actually calculated the chances of you getting into an acceleration-based incident and it turns out that the odds didn’t change, literally. It was a very, very small likelihood that you would get into a fatal crash because of acceleration before the incidents and even with the reported incidents today, it’s a very small likelihood.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Well, speaking of all the reports that are coming up, I want to introduce another guest. Arnold Rosenberg is Assistant Dean of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and is joining us now. Good morning and welcome to These Days.

ARNOLD ROSENBERG (Assistant Dean, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now I understand, speaking of reports that we were just talking about, there are more than 80 class action lawsuits that have been filed against Toyota and there’s a chance that the – in San Diego next week, a very important hearing is going to be held to determine jurisdiction, is that correct?

ROSENBERG: Yeah, it’s to determine venue, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And is it possible that the – a class action lawsuit could take place in San Diego?

ROSENBERG: I doubt it. I think that the main candidates are Los Angeles, New Orleans, there may be some other candidates but I don’t think it would be in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And what are these Toyota – what are these class action lawsuits about?

ROSENBERG: They’re obviously about the acceleration problem and there are allegations of fraud, there are allegations of breach of warranty, there are allegations of all kinds of contract and tort theories as well as some federal statutory theories.

CAVANAUGH: I – Professor Rosenberg, I read that a lot of the lawsuits seem to have to do with the sufferings of Toyota owners because the – their – the value of their car has actually…


CAVANAUGH: …decreased, is that correct?

ROSENBERG: Right. Yes, that’s right. That’s the big common question, is that the owners allege that they’ve lost value and they’ve lost value in their cars because of fraud by Toyota or other wrongful conduct by Toyota.

CAVANAUGH: Now all of these lawsuits filed against Toyota Corporation, how much liability does Toyota have? Has anyone made that speculation?

ROSENBERG: Well, there’s speculations as much as $3 billion.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Let’s go to the phones. Jeff is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Jeff. Welcome to These Days.

JEFF (Caller, San Diego): Hi. I have – my quest – it’s not a question, it’s kind of like some input here. In the early 1980s, when – right after I started practicing law, around 1983, I was thrust into these unintended acceleration cases that were on General Motors cars, predominantly Cadillacs. And at the time, a lot of older women were the drivers and they would say, oh, well, they had their foot on the wrong pedal. I was one of the first to demonstrate that we had braking instead of tire marks, you know, from the burning the tread into the road.


JEFF: And on one, you know, it was the early days of computers, I had this computer expert and he thought it was this idle speed control at the time. And he actually made it happen, demonstrated it well enough to win one case. He couldn’t make it happen other times, you see. And then also we had one Cadillac repairman who was putting a car on a lift, had his foot hanging out the door, boom, the car took off. And they’d still make the same claims that it was driver error, that it can’t possibly happen, and this, as I said, was predominantly Cadillacs and then it started to happen with the Audis. Audis weren’t very popular at the time. And it kind of went away, I guess, after that. You know, I had worked a few of these cases, then got kind of difficult. I sort of learned how to practice law from fighting General Motors defense attorneys. And now this is the first I hear of it again in many, many years except some isolated instances and now it seems to be prevalent in Toyota.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Jeff…

JEFF: Whereas, at that point, it was General Motors so I’m wondering if that has any – well, what – you know, what you could say on that. How could you comment on that?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Jeff, for that. And we kind of touched on that before, Dr. Krueger, in the fact that, you know, a lot of these allegations or a lot of these memories at least are now surfacing from a time when cars did not have the kind of electronics that they have right now.

DR. KRUEGER: Yeah, the examples that the most recent caller is mentioning, especially the Audi incidents were related to the air-conditioning system there because there was a coupling between the air-conditioning and the motor control and it was, again, an electronic coupling, and it led to acceleration when people were actually trying to park in front of their driveways with slight slopes and get the car – the garage door open. And that was actually a fatal accident for some.

CAVANAUGH: That is a – that’s really remarkable. And this happened back in the eighties.


CAVANAUGH: Interesting.

DR. KRUEGER: Or in early nineties.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Rosenberg, Mr. Sykes, with his Prius case, basically has said that he’s not going to be suing Toyota. He may be the only person who doesn’t sue Toyota over this. I’m wondering, if, you know, now Toyota says the results are inconsistent. If somehow they prove that what Mr. Sykes claims happened could not have happened, is there any way that Toyota would reverse sue? Would sue the people making claims that Toyota says are not true?

ROSENBERG: Well, in theory they could. I doubt that it would actually happen. They could sue for what’s commonly called trade libel, which is a tort but I don’t think that’s really going to happen. I think that this is all part of – I mean, there are various possible motives why somebody might falsify a report like this but, of course, we don’t know that it’s false.


ROSENBERG: It could very well be true and, as Professor Krueger was saying, there are possible explanations as to why, you know, there’s an awful lot of information that you just can’t verify or negate based on what’s left over after an event like this.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Kathy is calling us from Hillcrest. Good morning, Kathy. Welcome to These Days.

KATHY (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi.


KATHY: My comment is because of different news stories I’ve heard on NPR and KPBS, Toyota has tremendous resources, the bottom line kind of thing. And, you know, they’re not going to – when they first came out, the president said, well, we were – we’re being too ambitious, you know, and, you know, their resources, their lobbying powers, they’ll be able to keep this at bay even if it is true. My son has a Prius and he already experienced this with that car, the acceleration. Thank God it wasn’t anything serious. But it usually has to be like the tire situation years ago, somebody has to die. You know, and it’s so unfortunate but we, as individuals, don’t have the resources…


KATHY: …that Toyota has, and the lobbying power right into the government. It was reported how they’ve given money to some of the people who are on some of these committees for their reelection…

CAVANAUGH: Kathy, thank you. Thank you very much for your comments. I want to try to take one more call. Lori is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, Lori, and welcome to These Days.

LORI (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. Good morning to you all. I just had two brief comments to make. One is I’m from an – kind of a mechanical engineering family and my brother ended up working for Toyota where he works presently in Kentucky, and he always cautioned me to buy cars that were as simply made as possible because the more complicated a car becomes, the more complications that you can have in its operation. And I just think it’s important to remember that machinery, and especially electronics, are fallible. So when I hear that the policeman comes up next to this man, you know, as if he’s standing on the brakes, you know, why would the policeman, you know, make such a claim and why would the man be in that position? And, too, I was thinking about the idea of the profile of a person who buys a Toyota Prius.


LORI: You know, you’re not talking about someone who’s buying a Porsche or a Saab, you know, who’s going to go screaming down the street and, you know, may be little bit more suspect. So that – I used to be a Saab owner, if that tells you anything.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Lori. So sober citizens buy the Prius and so that’s very interesting. Dr. Krueger, I wonder, Lori makes the point that perhaps we should be buying very simple cars but actually I remember talking with you about this before, electronics actually have made cars an awful lot safer, haven’t they?

DR. KRUEGER: They have. And you have, in cars like the Prius and in many of the cars by American car companies and European car companies, you have now electronic stability control, which is one of the main reasons some experts attribute about 15 to 20% decrease in fatal accidents to the introduction of electronic stability control. On the other hand, you find that the introduction of electronics has led to better fuel economy and the Prius is one of the prime examples of this.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time but I’m sure we’re going to be talking a lot more about this as time goes on. Professor Arnold Rosenberg, thanks so much for joining us today.


CAVANAUGH: Arnold Rosenberg is Assistant Dean of Thomas Jefferson School of Law. And Dr. Krueger, thanks – thank you so much again.

DR. KRUEGER: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Ingolf Krueger is professor of Computer Science at UCSD, and he also directs the university's Service-Oriented Software and Systems Engineering Laboratory. If you didn’t get a chance to ask us a question on air, please go online and post your comments, And coming up, a look at the candidates on the San Diego ballot, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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