Why James Sikes Is a Hybrid Hero

Step aside Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. James Sikes might just become the hybrid movement’s most recognized celebrity.

James Sikes

For the past several weeks, media and government officials have stirred widespread public concern about the safety of the Toyota Prius—publishing first and investigating later (if at all). But the truthfulness of the most publicized incident so far—what might be described as cross between the Balloon Boy Hoax and the OJ Simpson Highway Chase—is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Based on research by Jalopnik, the auto blog—which was picked up by Fox News, USA Today, and other outlets—Sikes’s background is checkered with problems: a police record for grand theft, a filing for bankruptcy, and ownership of a swingers website where users can post erotic photos.

Of course, Sikes’s questionable background doesn’t prove that the Prius and other Toyota vehicles are free of technical safety issues—any more than a series of reported problems is proof positive of major safety glitches. In fact, investigators may never come to a definitive conclusion about reported Prius acceleration cases.

Nonetheless, revelations that the Sikes incident might have been hoax could slow down media and government from knee-jerk reactions. In that sense, Sikes could be credited as the man who convinced the public to question if Prius safety questions are more hype than reality. Hybrid cars have long been a lightning rod for strong feelings for pro-hybrid eco-types and the anti-hybrid crowd who see Prius drivers as smug, wimpy or simply misdirected.

Emerging details about Sikes:

  • Questions were first raised after his 911call became public. The 911 operator repeatedly told Sikes to put his Prius into neutral during the more than 20-minute call, but Sikes didn’t act on her requests, and didn’t try it. He said he was afraid it might slip into reverse.
  • He’s been on TV before, and seems to cherish the attention. In 2006 he was on television, winning $55,000 on “The Big Spin.” As a real estate agent in San Diego, he boasts of his celebrity clients, including Constance Ramos of “Extreme Home Makeover.”
  • Two years ago, Sikes filed for bankruptcy in San Diego. Documents show he was more than $700,000 in debt and owed Toyota $19000 for his Prius, his sole remaining car. Toyota was listed as a $19,000 creditor, the value of the leased Prius, which has to be returned. Sikes’ bankruptcy court filing showed he also owed $115,000 on 16 credit cards.
  • In 2001, Sikes filed a police report with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department for $58,000 in stolen property, including jewelry, a mini-DV camera and gear, and $24,000 in cash.
  • Sikes appears to have started the website AdultSwingLife.com. The AdultSwingLife website is not a pornographic site, but the online forum features erotic photos of its members. It’s not clear how much money the site is making, or whether it will help with the bankruptcy.

Hybrid Ethics

Toyota and NHTSA dispatched engineers this week to examine the car. There is a chance, though, that they’ll find nothing to confirm or refute details Sikes provided. On Thursday, a Toyota executive said the company is “mystified” by the Sikes incident. “It’s tough for us to say if we’re skeptical. I’m mystified in how it could happen with the brake override system,” he said.

If nothing else, James Sikes dispels the myth that Prius drivers are all goody-goody types. His chutzpah in perpetuating a possible hybrid hoax—as well as his brushes with the law and swinging lifestyle—show a level of bravado usually not associated with hybrid drivers trying to minimize their impact on Mother Earth.


  • Amanda Blumberg

    http://www.forbes.com/2010/03/12/toyota-autos-hoax-media-opinions-contributors-michael-fumento.html

    Commentary
    Toyota Hybrid Horror Hoax
    Michael Fumento, 03.12.10, 01:37 PM EST
    Exploring an overblown media frenzy.

  • cjcold

    I have been sceptical of many of the claims of run-away Toyotas from the start. I have owned a 4X4 Tacoma for 11 years and it is the best vehicle I have ever driven off a showroom floor. Except for having to reaplace a u-joint last year it has been problem free for over 200,000 miles. I’ve driven a few prius’ and they seem to be great little cars for my friends who own them. They swear by them not at them. I try to avoid conspiracy theories, but that’s what it is starting to seem like. Toyota should not just be looking into the cars, but into the people who are making the complaints as well.

  • DownUnder

    Thanks Amanda for the article.
    Hero or not James S must be grilled by Toyota. This is not a joke, James. It’s defamation at a high level.

  • Max Reid

    Its a hoax
    It came in Forbes article.
    Prius sold 27,000 units in Japan. This month Toyota is offering discounts on their vehicles. Expect Prius sales to go up.

  • Nelson Lu

    Saving the Prius is not the same as saving hybrids in general. There are now a good number of non-Prius hybrids that have their only plusses, compared to the Prius.

  • Anonymous

    nelson, last time i checked there is no active production veh that has higher fuel efficiency as the prius. so you’ll have to excuse me if i take an attack to the flagship of hybrids as an attack on hybrid.

    I have no doubt big oil is also at work in the background. it killed ev1 and many other fuel efficient vehicles. it wasn’t able to stop the prius wave but is certainly trying very hard

  • Nelson Lu

    Anonymous, the point is understood. I disagree for a couple reasons:

    1. In order for hybrids to be more popular to the people in general, the “hybrid = Prius” idea has to be nipped. Right now, there are many reasons why the Prius is not suitable for everyone even though there is now a decent to good hybrid for nearly every application that is needed. The idea that if you want a hybrid that you have to get a Prius is a bad idea to plant in the public’s mind, in general.

    2. The bad publicity regarding the Prius, whether deserved or not — and I don’t think that it’s deserved (as to the Prius), although certainly there are some troubling things that Toyota did/didn’t do — does not appear to be tainting other hybrids. It’s tainting other Toyotas — or rather, the problems with the other Toyotas are tainting it — but I see no generalized sense that the public — to the extent that it is even aware of other hybrids (see above) — believes that other hybrids are also unsafe.

  • AP

    Nelson, you make good points. I agree that this is not mainly about hybrids, but Toyotas, and the Prius is just one in the mix. it is also largely about Toyota’s poor handling of the issues at hand, especially their lack of savvy in handling the media and legal system (vs. handling our government agencies).

    But the question about electronics and what to do IF things go wrong begs a new question: should our government be incentivizing and subsidizing the increased complexity (as well as increased cost and weight) of hybrid technology, as opposed to other options (lighter structures, more aero, etc.)?

    I think that policies that make us put all our eggs in one basket make us (as an industry) produce inferior performance and value to the customer, compared to these other options or combinations of them.

    You have to remember that most politicians and bureaucrats aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed when it comes to technology, and often are swayed by “flashy” presentations and names, easy votes, or (maybe most of all) campaign contributions.

    This may be a good time to sit back and question whether the “non-hybrid” features of the Prius, Volt, etc. (low air drag, low rolling resistance), would be better matched with an aluminum structure, minimal batteries (for less weight), and a manual or DCT (dual-cutch transmission). And what government policies would encourage them.

    Combinations of features like this might produce near-equivalent results for most drivers, as well as producing better value in the resale market (no worn-out battery to replace, for example).

    As an automotive engineer, I think we’re currently on a more convoluted path than necessary toward fuel efficiency, and may be starting to see the effects.

  • Nelson Lu

    AP write:

    But the question about electronics and what to do IF things go wrong begs a new question: should our government be incentivizing and subsidizing the increased complexity (as well as increased cost and weight) of hybrid technology, as opposed to other options (lighter structures, more aero, etc.)?

    AP, I agree that this is an important question, but I think that it is already being addressed by the revised CAFE — which might not be a very clean way of doing it, but the revised CAFE makes it that unless the manufacturer is actually able to make hybrids/EV a large segment of its production fleet, it would have to improve its “conventional” fleet as well. Ford is trying to do that with smaller cars and EcoBoost, for example. (It is also trying to replace its police vehicles, going from the Crown Victoria to the Taurus, although I don’t know if police units actually count toward CAFE or not.)

  • Anonymous

    Nelson

    1. this doesn’t make sense. this is like saying there is a need to disassociate ipod and other mp3 players. similar to ipod, prius is just symbol representing many lines of hybrid cars, not necessary the only hybrid car out there (hence the word flagship). you have to give consumers more credit than that, especially with the wealth of information accessible through the internet.

    2. not yet… just as most wars, the big oil would want to kill the leader first and the rest will be easier to clean up.

  • AP

    Nelson, I know what you mean, but mandating fuel efficiency through CAFE is one thing. We need to have customers demanding it, and that won’t happen with $3 gas.

    For the time being, the extra cost of an aluminum structure to meet CAFE is merely a nuisance for the consumer, who won’t want to pay the costs. In an already cut-throat American market, the manufacturers will have to eat the cost, reducing profits in a weak industry.

    On the other hand, if the customer buys certain (more complex, heavier and more costly) hybrids, they can get money from the government (which we as a country can’t afford to pay out). The picking of winners and losers by government is a loser’s game, and is causing unintended consequences.

    Solving things the most complicated way is what we seem to want to do in America, in order to avoid politicians making difficult choices.

  • veek

    Rather than speculate about the outcome, and before assigning guilt or innocence, it may be better to wait until all the technical investigations into this man’s particular car are completed.

  • mechtony

    The biggest problem that I can see with new vehicles is that the key, if one is used ,wont shut off the power to either the engine or the computer that is running everything on the vehicle.The vehicles all run by wire which requires computers to run all the main systems and that can take away control from the operator.

  • Carl

    So “Anonymous” thinks the defects are just rumors and propaganda, but they believe all of those “big oil” conspiracy stories.

    Skepticism can be such a discriminating tool.

  • Anonymous

    if you think there is no conspiracy from big oil, go checkout the documentary film “who killed the electric car”

  • Anonymous

    news flash “Probe questions runaway Prius story”

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100314/ap_on_bi_ge/us_runaway_prius

    it’s interesting how the james family asked media to leave them alone because they are not seeking damages from toyota.

    So one has to question, is big oil paying him to fake the incident? Nah, too far fetched according to Mr Carl…

  • Dan not the register user.

    There’s always the chance the man is just happy to be alive.

    Just because the engineers cannot explain the event doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. The company I work for is mystified a fair percentage of the time when our technology misbehaves…

  • Anonymous

    i think james is happy alright… He’s happy they did not find the smoking gun to charge him with fraud

  • Anonymous

    The guy was behind on his payments for his car and this was his out!!!!

    The guy is in $700,000 worth of debt $20k of it on the prius! The guy wanted to try and find an easy way out of his lease

    I can’t believe you think a lying criminal is a hero. This is whats wrong with world these days

  • Nelson Lu

    I don’t think anyone here claims to know to a 100% certainty that Sikes is telling the truth. It doesn’t look good right now for him.

    But I don’t think anyone can properly proclaim, at this point, to know to a 100% certainly (or at least, beyond a reasonable doubt) that Sikes is lying. Pretending that you know exactly what happened to that kind of certainty doesn’t speak well for your credibility, either.

  • Anonymous

    interesting mr nelson, is there anything really 100% anymore (e.g. are you 100% sure your car’s brake will not malfunction tomorrow, predict the orbit of a proton with 100% certainty, there is no alien abduction, etc)?

    beyond reasonable doubt is based on likelihood/probability and varies by individual standards. my consideration of probability of mr sikes is lying include:

    1. prius malfunctioning as described by mr sikes is low to begin with,
    2. mr sikes’s history of insurance fraud/bad credit/bankruptcy/fame seeker/etc,
    3. expert findings that stated physical proofs are not consistent to his version of what happened,
    4. invasive responses during 911 call and media interview,

    sorry, what’s the chance of all that inconsistencies happening with no intention for fraud? It’s low enough to meet my beyond reasonable doubt criteria, thank you very much. so don’t tell me my credibility is lowered because my reasonable doubt standard does not meet yours unless you have other significant evidences to support that doubt.

  • Anonymous

    Besides the many reasonable doubts pointed out in the article linked in Amanda’s response, still there are many questions.

    If I were the victim of this unintended-acceleration issue, I would try to reproduce the acceleration. I would attend all possible researches and tell all informations such as what switches I turned on or off, how fast I was going, and all sorts of things before the acceleration started. Because this Toyota car almost killed me as well as many others.

    By reproducing the sudden acceleration, I can prove that it’s not a hoax. It is very, very important.

    But as far as I know, these people aren’t even cooperative about reproducing the unintended-acceleration. In fact, Rhonda Smith’s Lexus has had no problem of unintended-acceleration for 27,000 miles after she sold the dangerous car with less than 3,000 miles.

    And besides that, ABC News has been found to be fabricating the unintended-acceleration.

    After searching the Web, I found an article about Toyota cars flying in Australia too.
    http://rondam.blogspot.com/2010/02/more-fishy-toyota-horror-stories.html

    Now, what can I say.

    Thanks to Ms. Amanda Blumberg and Mr. Michael Fumento. It cleared my mind. Thanks a lot.

  • Patty Sikes

    Myyyyyyyyyyyyy hero!

  • AP

    Anonymous, to be fair, the problem with ABC’s spot was not that they faked anything in the actual unintended acceleration run. The problem is that they used footage of a quick “blip” of the throttle in neutral (revving the engine to 6,000 RPM) to dramatize it.

    During the actual demo, the engine speed never exceeded 3,000 RPM. If their demonstration had only shown a shot of the tach during this time, their story would have been fine – as far as that part goes.

    Toyota’s main substantive rebuttal is that the electronic malfunction simulated by the researcher would also cause unintended acceleration if done to other cars. I don’t remember if they said whether the other cars saved error codes for diagnostics – the researcher claimed that Toyotas did not.

    So my point isn’t whether ABC is right or wrong – that hasn’t been shown. My point is that news organizations have an uncanny ability to take a credible story on a technical problem, and then screw it up by adding some unnecessary and unrelated fluff that completely blows their credibility.

  • Nelson Lu

    Anonymous wrote:

    sorry, what’s the chance of all that inconsistencies happening with no intention for fraud? It’s low enough to meet my beyond reasonable doubt criteria, thank you very much. so don’t tell me my credibility is lowered because my reasonable doubt standard does not meet yours unless you have other significant evidences to support that doubt.

    My point is: all you have is what’s in the press. How many times have things been buried in the press just because the side that is telling truth had 1) a bad past (which Sikes has, in particular), 2) biased testing (which, given that the tests were done at a Toyota dealership, I’d find problematic), or 3) a side with big money working against them (which Sikes currently has)? Not only that, but there are going to be all kinds of things that you don’t know about.

    I’m a criminal defense attorney, and way too many times I’ve seen things portrayed in the press that are simply not the way things are *even if you accept completely the prosecutorial version of what was alleged*. Sikes may be a fraud, but no way can you pretend to *know* what happened with just what has been placed on the table by the press, without further information. Pretending otherwise is, I’ll say again, not good for your own credibility.

  • Anonymous

    nelson wrote “I’m a criminal defense attorney”

    ah, that explains a lot… :)

  • Anonymous

    Nelson says: “My point is: all you have is what’s in the press. How many times have things been buried in the press just because the side that is telling truth…”

    i’m sure each side thinks that they are telling the truth, even if it’s based on their twisted thinking.

    vice versa also applies, sometimes the media has more facts available than what juries can hear. (e.g. technicalities, limited resources for prosecutors, incompetent professional work, etc.) fortunately the world is not all unfair, if james has chosen to use the media to his favor, he must also accept the consequences (i.e. media investigations and criticisms).

    if it looks like a duck, walked like a duck, quack like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

  • DocM

    2 years ago my ’04 Turbo Beetle totally shut down by itself on the Golden Gate Bridge. It happened 3 more times over the next year but the dealer never found a fault on the car’s chip or anything mechanical. Eventually, replacing part of fuel system fixed the problem. My point is that he always believed me, he never gave up and never believed that the chip was 100% accurate.

  • Anonymous

    DocM says: “My point is that he always believed me, he never gave up and never believed that the chip was 100% accurate.”

    the question in this case is not just about possibility of mechanical failure because everything can fail under the wrong circumstances. this is about the combination of circumstances that lead to the “event”. I’m assuming your mechanic had no reason to distrust you (e.g. lied to him before, behind on car payment and trying to return the car, history of fraud, etc).

  • veek

    I still say that the “jury should be out,” at least until the evidence is in from the accident investigation teams. Emotional speculation without an open mind and without adequate evidence has led to bad outcomes, including people being lynched and wars being started. We should try to get beyond this, even in such a relatively minor item as this. Let’s treat Mr. Sikes just like we’d want others to treat us — innocent until demonstrated to be guilty, no matter how skeptical one may be about buying a used car from him.

  • DownUnder

    Yes, that’s correct. Although I don’t trust James, let’s wait and see.

  • oxjr

    I saw that documentary too…. what they failed to mention was the ev-1 was an ecological nightmare and legislation at the time was putting restrictions on the use of non recycable materials in vehicles (like Germany’s recycable auto program) Those early electrics were rolling toxic cease pools. A wave of hybrids with much less toxic batteries in just a few years after that film was made … disproving the conspiracy. Big oil does enough evil without adding a silly conspiracy theory to the mix.

  • Anonymous

    oxjr says: “Those early electrics were rolling toxic cease pools. A wave of hybrids with much less toxic batteries in just a few years after that film was made … disproving the conspiracy.”

    excuse me? how is EV-1 being crushed disprove the conspiracy? what you failed to mention is today’s ICE cars are also very toxic, some may argue much more so than ev1. the major difference is oil is the soul of ICE and plays major part of hybrids (possibly why it did not get killed off).

    to think that big oil has no conspiracy against demise of electric vehicles is a bit naive when you see how many trillions of dollars are at stake here. how serious is it? it’s worth going to war. conspiracy sounds fairly trivial compare to war doesn’t it

  • Anonymous

    dont forget ev1 uses lead-acid batteries, something every ICE vehicle has. according to wiki: “In the United States 97% of all battery lead was recycled between 1997 and 2001″. some topic pool eh…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead-acid_battery#Environmental_concerns

  • Jerry

    Sikes case isn’t reproducible. He didn’t follow the 911 directions. I smell a rat on this one. Fraud-alert

  • Culo

    If this guy is lying (and he looks like a scumbag), then he should be held accountable for it. His story is just too iffy and his 2008 bankruptcy (as someone mentioned) doesn’t make him look good. I say hang him by the balls until proven innocent (just for kicks and giggles).

  • Anonymous

    evidences shows that his version of the story isn’t consistent but likely will not be enough to convict him of fraud.

    for example, 250 times the brakes were pressed in 20 mins? that’s about once every 4 to 5 seconds. who does that kind of braking interval if the car is out of control? it is almost as if he’s trying to wear out the brakes. while inconsistent, this is not a smoking gun to charge him with fraud.

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