* Toyota: no evidence Calif. Prius surged out of control
* Toyota: further probe needed of driver’s account
By Steve Gorman
SAN DIEGO, March 15 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) said on Monday it had found no evidence to support the driver’s version of a widely publicized “runaway” Prius episode a week ago, suggesting that authorities examine whether the incident happened as reported to police.
Toyota representatives convened a news conference in San Diego, near the site of the March 8 report of the “runaway” vehicle, to announce preliminary findings of its examination of the 2008 Prius driven by James Sikes.
U.S. safety investigators said earlier on Monday that they had found no evidence to support or disprove Sikes’ version of events. [ID:nN15175239]
Sikes, 61, had reported in a call to 911-emergency operators that his Prius sped out of control for some 20 minutes before he could bring the vehicle under control with the assistance of the California Highway Patrol.
But Toyota said it had found no evidence that Sikes had been applying the brake forcefully throughout the episode as he had described.
Toyota declined to comment directly on Sikes or his account of events. “We will leave that to others,” Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said.
The Sikes incident, involving a dramatic pursuit by a highway patrol car, came at a crucial time for Toyota. The automaker has been struggling to reassure a jittery public it has turned a corner in dealing with safety issues that sparked a recall of 8.5 million vehicles worldwide.
Toyota said an examination of Sikes’ Prius showed that the car was being driven with the brakes lightly and repeatedly applied — some 250 times over a 30-mile stretch of highway.
The automaker said there was no other sign of any difficulty with the Prius. It said the accelerator pedal was found to be working normally, the floormat was not interfering or even touching the accelerator pedal.
The on-board computer on the vehicle also did not register a “trouble code” as it would have in the event that a malfunction had been detected, Toyota said.
Toyota said a brake override in the Prius would have cut engine power to the vehicle had the driver applied “moderate” pressure on the brake pedal.
Instead, Sikes appeared to have driven with the accelerator depressed and only light pressure on the brake pedal.
As a result, the front brakes showed signs of “severe wear and damage from overheating,” Toyota said.
“These findings suggest there should be further examination of Mr. Sikes’ account of the events of March 8,” Toyota said.
A lawyer for Sikes, John Gomez, could not be immediately reached for comment. (Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Writing by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Richard Chang)