The office of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa expressed doubts over the weekend about a San Diego's man's report of a harrowing, out-of-control acceleration experience in his second-generation Toyota Prius, stating that tests attempting to recreate the ride proved that the vehicle stopped and slowed as designed.
However, the northern San Diego County Republican's role in the investigation has been controversial: Not only is he a recipient of auto industry campaign contributions, but the representative last week insisted an aide from his office be present when National Highway Traffic Safety Administration inspectors and Toyota engineers examined the car. The federal inspectors walked away in protest but were later ordered by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- whom Issa had tattled to -- to let the layman from Issa's office in on the inspection.
We're guessing those inspectors are saying we told ya so right about now. Issa's inclusion in the process -- he does not even represent the district where the acceleration took place -- has been chaotic and perhaps political. And now he's jumped the queue and made conclusions that not even federal inspectors, who are the experts, have made.
There's clearly a smear campaign in the works against the Prius' driver, James Sikes, and it would interesting to find out who is behind it. A bankruptcy filing he prepared in 2008 has been brought up. And television news stations reported that Issa' leak on the investigation indicate the brakes on the car were not as worn as one would expect for a 30-minute fight against the car's motors.
But the California Highway Patrol officer who helped the driver reported that he saw him practically standing on the brakes, with smoke coming from the wheels.
Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, told the Los Angeles Times that the investigators "are continuing to review data from the Prius throughout the weekend. When they have finished their work, we will have something to say, and not before."
A spokesman for Issa questioned "the veracity" of driver Sikes. But just because the same incident could not be created doesn't mean that it didn't happen. A key claim of some of Toyota's loudest critics in the acceleration crisis is that there's an electronic bug in its vehicles.
Such a problem could be intermittent or even once-in-a-lifetime, they say. Toyota has so far insisted that acceleration issues were caused by physical, mechanical problems such as faulty acceleration pedals and mismatched floor mats. However, the most high-profile acceleration incidents have occurred in its electronics-dependent hybrid vehicles, where a gas pedal isn't just a gas pedal but a digitally-connected, go-faster device that also unleashes electric propulsion.
Such a system is called "drive by wire," where electronics are in charge. Toyota acknowledged that its vehicles do not have the kind of fail-safe, acceleration cut-off circuits available in many German makes. Such a cut-off squeezes off engine propulsion when the brakes are in use.
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Sikes said he was standing on the brakes as the vehicle reached more than 90 miles an hour on an eastern San Diego County freeway. His ordeal lasted 30 minutes -- and he stayed on the phone with a 911 dispatcher -- until a CHP unit talked him into a slow-down procedure that put a stop to the madness.
Sikes' lawyer says his client is not suing, has avoided press, and would have no reason to make up the story. Some television news reports questioned why Sikes did not put the vehicle in neutral, as a dispatcher had asked, but there is the possibility of panic (indeed, the CHP officer's calming guidance included basic moves, including shutting the engine down).
In any case, the investigation of last week's incident has turned into a fiasco. Issa should have stepped aside and let the federal inspectors do their work without the question of whether or not his campaign contributors are coloring his tact. There's also the specter of Toyota having access to the car at all, let alone whether or not its own inspectors were allowed time alone with the vehicle.
If it's a federal investigation, the company that has millions of dollars at stake in the investigation should have been left out entirely. We can't imagine a case in which a company that might be at fault for a deadly flaw was allowed to help investigators get to the bottom of things. But at least with federal inspectors and Toyota's engineers looking at the car, there was parity. It's clear that the presence of Issa, a man who has reportedly been accused of stealing cars in his younger years, has grabbed the wheel of this controversy.