Toyota, NHTSA in New York to Investigate Runaway Prius

NEW YORK - Investigative teams from Toyota and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are at the Harrison, N.Y. police headquarters today to examine a Toyota Prius that allegedly experienced unintended acceleration on March 9th, causing a 56-year-old woman to race across a two lane road and crash into a stone wall as she pulled out of a driveway.

Six technicians from Toyota and two from NHTSA are on the scene, visually inspecting and gathering data from the the car's on board computers to try to determine if there were any technical failures that could have contributed to the accident. The teams are focusing on trouble codes and data stored in the "black box", which, on the 2005 model year Prius involved in the incident, only records information such as throttle and brake position at the moment of impact and just after, but not before.

Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt says that Toyota will also be demonstrating the Prius' brake override system for the police, which gives the brake pedal priority over the accelerator if both are pressed at the same time. "There's logic in all of our hybrids," Hoyt said. "When you step on the brake pedal, the engine returns to idle. If that's all working it should be impossible for it to take off on its own."

After the data has been collected and fully analyzed by Toyota's technicians, it will be handed over to the Harrison Police Department, which has retained the services of independent forensic technology firm Remote Technologies International, which will independently examine the data further.

Toyota is leaving it up to the Harrison Police Department to decide if the results of the investigation should be made public. The police investigators say they will likely release the information if it proves to be conclusive. The authorities maintain that there is no indication that driver error led to the crash, but that they have not yet ruled it out.

Toyota recalled more than 8 million cars because their gas pedals could become stuck or be snagged by floor mats. In addition, the government is looking into complaints from at least 60 Toyota drivers who say they got their cars fixed and still had problems. Toyota is checking into those complaints as well.

The investigations reflect challenges faced by the company and government. Dealers and experts have had trouble recreating episodes of sudden acceleration, and Toyota says tests have failed to find other problems beyond the sticking gas pedals and floor mats.

Some safety experts have said electronics, not simpler mechanical flaws, could be causing the problems. Toyota has said it has found no evidence of problems with its electronics but is studying the issue.

"It's not the old garden-variety defect investigation, where you have a broken part and the vehicle is disabled. It's an intermittent problem," said Allan J. Kam, a former senior enforcement attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who now directs a private consulting firm.

Toyota officials said they did not know how long the New York investigation would take. The company plans to release the results to Harrison police but not to the media because the police are also investigating.

The Prius is not on Toyota's recall list for sticky accelerators. However, the 2005 hybrid had been serviced for the floor mat problem.

On Monday, Toyota held a press conference in San Diego to challenge the story of James Sikes, who claimed his Prius sped out of control on the freeway last week. The company said its own tests had found almost nothing wrong with the car, and said Sikes had apparently pressed the brakes and gas at least 250 times.

Jason Vines, who was Ford Motor Co.'s top public relations executive when the company faced scrutiny over massive Firestone tire recalls on its cars in 2000, said the San Diego case would prompt similar interest in the New York investigation.

"They've gotten themselves into another box because of doing it one time in San Diego and now not doing it (in Harrison)," Vines said. "It's just going to create more confusion."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.