Hybrid Prius Drivers May Be in for an Unexpectedly Wild Ride

Bobette Riner publishes an electricity index used to promote renewable energy, and she bought a brand-new Prius last year to shoot the bird at the oil companies.

"I felt so smug for a while," she says. "Especially being in Houston."

She was lucky to score the car from a dealership on the city's south side, because there had been a three-month wait for nearly a year to get a Prius. The dealership couldn't even keep a model for the showroom.

Elizabeth James was driving on the interstate when her Prius accelerated out of control near Lawson, Colorado. She crashed through a forest and ended up in a river.
Courtesy of Elizabeth James
Elizabeth James was driving on the interstate when her Prius accelerated out of control near Lawson, Colorado. She crashed through a forest and ended up in a river.
Courtesy of Elizabeth James

The car had a "cute little body" that Riner loved, and she reveled in driving like a "nerdy Prius owner," watching the energy usage display on the car's center console, trying to drain every possible mile from a gallon of gasoline. When she hit 2,000 miles, she could count her trips to a gas station on one hand.

On a rainy night last fall, a couple of months after Riner bought her Prius, she was driving to a sales meeting. She hated driving in the rain because a car wreck in college had catapulted her through the windshield, and doctors almost had to amputate her leg.

Traffic was congested but moving, and Riner kept the Prius pegged at 60 miles per hour, constantly looking at the console to manage her fuel consumption.

Suddenly, she felt the car hydroplaning out of control. When she glanced at the speedometer, she realized it had shot up to 84 mph. Riner wasn't hydroplaning; quite simply, her Prius had accelerated on its own.

She pushed on the brakes but they were dead. Then, just as suddenly as the car had taken off, it shut down. The console lit up with warning lights, leaving Riner fighting a stiff steering wheel as she coasted across four lanes of traffic and down an exit ramp.

The car stopped near a PetSmart parking lot, and Riner sat in disbelief, listening to fat raindrops pelt the Prius, wondering whether her new car had gone crazy.

The Prius is one of the great success stories of the past decade, becoming the one car synonymous with "hybrid" and helping Toyota drill into a skeptical American auto market as the Big Three failed and failed again to produce efficient vehicles.

The car is the status symbol of geeky, green, environmentally conscious do-gooders, not to mention some liberal Hollywood celebrities. Meryl Streep once said, "If everybody that had two cars had a Prius instead of an SUV, we wouldn't be in the Middle East right now."

Prius owners don't have to tell you they want to help lead the country to energy independence and lower our carbon footprints, because the Prius already says, "I'm doing my part."

From day one, Prius came in for its share of criticism, as well. Early reports claimed that the manufacturing is so complex and uses so much energy that the Prius stomps out a troublingly deep carbon footprint.

Doug Korthof, who lives about 20 miles south of Toyota headquarters in Torrance, California, was featured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and pickets Toyota to this day. As an electric-car fanatic, Korthof loathes the Prius.

"They were looking at all different ways to avoid doing the electric car, and one of those was the Prius," Korthof says. "They could say, 'We'll make a car that's a hybrid, and then you won't need an electric car.' The Prius was their way of getting out of the electric car and it worked."

Now, another side of the Prius has orbited into view, as owners share horror stories on blogs and message boards while critics pounce. It's not only the need-for-green skeptics who spit vitriol at anyone who suggests that Americans could be harming the planet, but loyal Prius drivers who are crashing their cars through forests, garage doors, gas stations, and stop signs from Arizona to Michigan to New York.

Take Stacey Josefowicz of Anthem, who bought a new Prius in May 2007. A couple of months later, driving down a four-lane highway toward a stoplight, she stepped on the brakes, but nothing happened. She freaked then weaved into a turning lane, coasting to a Target parking lot with the brake pedal jammed to the floor. A Toyota technician told her she ran out of gas, but she objected that that wasn't true; there was fuel in the car. Still, he returned her Prius to her with no repairs.

A month later, she sped through a stop sign when the brakes went out again. "I think they thought, 'She's a woman driver; she obviously let the car run out of gas,'" Josefowicz says. "Thank God I didn't get killed or cause an accident; it would have been on their head."

Or take Lupe Egusquiza of Tustin, California. She was waiting in a line of cars in September 2007 to pick up her daughter from school when her Prius suddenly took off and crashed into the school's brick wall. Egusquiza reported $14,000 worth of damage to her car.

Or Herbert Kuehn from Battle Creek, Michigan. In October 2005, his Prius sped out of control on a highway before he "labored" the car to a stop on the gravel shoulder of the road. He was so scared of his Prius that he stopped driving it, but "under good conscience did not feel that I could sell it."

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15 comments
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Lars Bogart
Lars Bogart

"Sudden Vehicle Acceleration" is a myth, like BigFoot. Does not happen.

Every single case is driver error.

Marcy
Marcy

Mike Wells says that Prius owners "turn their cars off" so they can coast to a stop without using gas.

That displays a remarkable amount of ignorance as there is no need to turn a Prius off when coasting to a stop, the Prius doesn't use any gas while coasting to a stop as it shuts off the gas engine on its own.

Perhaps Mike is just confused, or perhaps he is angry that some people don't care to send nearly as much money to Middle East terrorists as he does with his 6,000 lb SUV, sort of a guilt complex.

But just the same Mike, when you hear that silent Prius coast to a stop next to you it isn't silent because the owner turned off the car.

Marjorie Jones
Marjorie Jones

Two questions: Did the problems start when the American designer changed the Prius, or were there problems with the first two years of design by the Japanese? And when the car accelerates out of control, why don't the drivers just shift into neutral? If brakes fail, just friction would stop the car by itself.

snowi
snowi

What the heck do the brakes have to do with being out of fuel?

I'll take my 33mpg malibu.

BTW why are folks buying Japanese cars for anyway? The old myth is long gone, the US makes lots of good hybrids...

Rob
Rob

Paul, the new TDI is not a bad car. Its not a great car either though IMHO. Consumer Reports finds its handling/performance/safety not significantly better than the standard Prius and about the same as the Touring model. Meanwhile the Prius they find to get much better mileage, much better reliability, and much better customer satisfaction. They cost about the same upfront, but they also find the Prius to be cheaper to own over the long run. Most of the car mags do find it somewhat more fun to drive if thats what you care about. CR averaged 33mpg in the '09 TDI, 42mpg in the Prius Touring, and 44mpg in the base Prius. Considering the 15% energy/CO2/cost penalty for diesel the '09 TDI is equivilent to 28.7mpg. Not bad considering the current Prius design is 6 years old vs. the brand new TDI. The 2010 Prius arriving next month is bigger, faster, gets better mileage, better handling, new features and costs the same as the old one did.

Rob

Rob
Rob

Wow, I guess I missed the news flash when the New Times was bought out by Faux News. WTH? Apparently they didn't have a cover story this week, so someone googled "Prius bad" and put together this compilation of debunked old news. Not what I expect from the paper I can usually count on to stick it to the man, rather than handing the man another stick to beat those trying to change the status quo. Of all the stupid things people do with their money, harassing those who chose to spend a little extra (or not as the case may be) driving a car they think is reducing our dependence on mid-east oil and benefiting the environment seems pretty petty.

Spinella's "research" for CNW is nothing short of a smear campaign against hybrids that was exposed and old news years ago. He won't show anyone how he came up with his numbers, or say who paid for the study. What is known is that he has done consulting and contract work for the Big 3 in the past. Numerous environmental organizations, the Union of Concerned Scientists, researchers at MIT and the DOE have all looked at the numbers and said he's full of it. He says he has nothing against hybrids, but elsewhere is on the record saying they are a fashion statement and shouldn't be allowed in carpool lanes because driving them fast renders their them no better than a regular car (which isn't true as discussed below). Hardly an unbiased number cruncher with the welfare of the world as his only mission.

This idea that the upfront environmental costs of hybrids is so staggering that it erases any benefit (combined with the claim that under real world driving conditions the benefits disappear) has been central to the auto industries dis-information campaign regarding hybrids. Credible sources (DOE/MIT) put the entire design, production, recycling, and disposal energy cost of a Prius in the range of 10-20% of its entire lifecycle energy consumption. A typical vehicle is usually in the neighborhood of 10%. Using Andrews example of driving a used '94 Ranger 4cyl instead of buying a Prius; The EPA (fueleconomy.gov) says for an average drive the Ranger will consume 714 gallons of gas a year. The Prius will consume 326 gallons. Ignoring that the Ranger has not paid its recycling/disposal energy cost and assessing the Prius a 20% consumption penalty to cover its production/destruction energy cost puts us at 391 gallons a year for the Prius, vs 741 gallons for the Ranger. Even with its entire energy cost considered vs. only the fuel consumption of the used '94 Ranger the Ranger uses twice as much energy, twice as much mid-east oil, produces twice as much CO2. Never mind that the tailpipe emissions related to smog and other air quality issues are 30-40 times higher based on CARB test data. For a '94 Toyota Corolla the answer is only somewhat better, 577 gallons vs 326 gallons or 391 gallons adjusted for the Prius. The '94 Corolla is still 30-40 times higher on tailpipe emissions though. On top of that the whole idea of "getting out of" the energy cost of a new vehicle by buying used is simply not true. Buying a used car instead of a new one simply means that someone else bought a new car they didn't need. There is no net reduction in energy expended, you are only preventing even more energy from being expended to scrap a still serviceable vehicle. The above analysis comes out similarly with regards to new cars as well. The most fuel efficient non-hybrid on the market is the Smart ForTwo. Using the extreme case of a 10% production/destruction penalty for the Smart and 20% for the Prius, the Smart uses 458 gallons adjusted to the Priuses 391 gallons adjusted. Thats 17% more CO2, oil, etc despite being half the size, and slower.

Of course the above only works if everyone gets EPA mileage. Spinella and the neysayers would like you to believe that the Prius really can't manage its EPA rating, largely because all the fancy complicated hybrid gear only works in stop and go traffic, where as real patriotic American's drive everywhere flat-out all the time. While the electric drive on the Prius is of most benefit during acceleration and braking, the fact that it is present is what allows the Prius to run a much smaller engine running a more efficient cycle than would otherwise be acceptable. The DOE (Department of Energy) found when they reverse engineered the Prius to try and help out the Big 3, that this allows it to cruise at highway speeds with an engine thermodynamic efficiency of 37%. That rivals the efficiency of diesels (~35-40%), and is much better than the ~20% efficiency of traditional gas engines. This explains why the Prius, whose hybrid gear is "useless" for highway driving still gets better highway mileage than any other car on the US market and it only gets better when you slow down and the hybrid system can do its thing. The ~1700 Prius drivers tracking their mileage at greenhybrid.com are actually averaging 48.7mpg, somewhat better than the EPAs estimated 46mpg combined.

Lastly, Wayne hit the nail on the head regarding all the crazy behavior people claim their Priuses are responsible for. The "consumeraffairs" website mentioned, where many of these stories were collected has a long history of posting Prius bashing articles. When the domain registration for the site was tracked down several years back, it was traced back to a law office of the ambulance chasing variety. Clearly they are playing on peoples fears regarding all the new-fangled computerized gadgetry lurking in every Prius just waiting to go haywire in an attempt to make a huge wad of cash out of a class action lawsuit in which the "injured parties" will most likely get free floor mats and car washes. Toyota has ignored these claims (beyond examining the wrecks) because anyone who knows how the car actually works realizes that this is essentially an impossible situation. The throttle is electric. The brakes are traditional hydraulics with electric assist and the traditional redundant fluid loops. If the electric assist fails, the brake pedal gets harder, just like losing power assist on a regular car not softer as claimed. If the throttle fails and sticks wide open, the brakes are still stronger than the engine and the car stops (yes I've tried it). If you hit the power button on the dash, the battery and ICE are killed without any computer needing to respond. An independent computer monitors the high voltage system and disables the vehicle at any hint of a short or electrical failure. For the throttle control computer and hydraulic brakes to both fail all of a sudden and then magically fix themselves a few minutes later is basically impossible. One is an electrical system and the other is mechanical. They are independent. This is no more possible than both your mechanically linked but computer controlled fuel injection system throttle sticking open and your hydraulic brakes failing in any "normal" car. Google any auto brand plus the words "unintended acceleration" and you'll find plenty of people claiming their cars tried to kill them to. "Unintended Acceleration" is a catch phrase ambulance chasers put into peoples heads to make them realize their accident wasn't their fault and they should sue somebody. Because people fear what is different, and/or think its cool to dump on people trying to make a difference, they are more likely to believe its true in the Prius and make a news story out of it.

I'm very disappointed in the New Times for joining the Big 3 sheep brigade.

Wayne Turner
Wayne Turner

New �spin� on an old urban legend?

The recent article on supposed problems with the Toyota Prius (principally �sudden acceleration syndrome�) brought back memories of claims of sudden acceleration on passenger cars years ago, which I thought had been pretty well debunked over time. And lest you think I am one of those Prius �zealots who are religious about their cars�, I drive an Acura, have only owned one Toyota in my life (a truck) and do not intend to buy a Prius. I am merely a person with a technical background who has helped design many complex systems (mainly for aircraft, where the penalty for failure is generally much larger) and who dislikes sensationalism, which is what this article appears to be.

Here is a test anyone can do (though I take no responsibility if you choose to do so): take your car to a wide open parking lot, press the brake to the floor with your left foot and then press the gas pedal with your right foot and keep pressing until it is floored. Does the car move? No, though you may indeed overheat or damage your transmission. This is because the effective power of the brakes is much greater than that of the engine (generally three to five times as much), which also explains why it takes a lot longer to get from zero to sixty than from sixty to zero. In the Prius this gap between acceleration power and braking power is probably even much larger since both the electric and gas systems in the Prius are each under 80-horsepower (which could also explain why the one couple in the article could not get their Prius back up the steep hill without a running start). As a comparison, my Acura has around 260 horsepower, which is over three times as much as either engine in the Prius; I'm sure the brakes on the Prius are quite able to overcome this meager amount of engine power. Likewise, if in the same very wide open parking lot you drove at 50 mph and then pressed the gas AND the brake to the floor, you would find that the car will indeed stop, though obviously it would take longer than if you weren�t hitting the gas pedal as well.

What this means is that for a Prius (or any car) to continue accelerating when the brake pedal is pressed to the floor means that not only would the Prius have to accelerate suddenly with no one pressing the gas pedal, but that the brakes (a completely different system in the car) would have to fail simultaneously. In the article it appeared that the writer was trying offer this possibility because the car design is so �complex�. In reality a Prius is LESS complex; there may be more software than on a standard car but there are far less moving parts and less reliance on mechanical information (like vacuum and pressure) for making control decisions. Even the software in a Prius would probably pale in comparison to the complexity of the software in an iPhone, and unlike mechanical parts which vary as they wear thereby changing how the whole system works, the software never changes. No, I don�t think the problem here is complexity and in fact I think it is almost too simple. Just like the last time this came up, in most of these claims of �sudden acceleration� people are most likely hitting the gas pedal when they are trying to hit the brake. It may be hard some people to accept that this could happen, (especially for those who possibly made this mistake), but all one needs to do is to Google �pedal error� to read numerous accounts of this happening.

Who wants to admit that they jammed their foot on the gas pedal when they meant to hit the brakes and so they drove their car through their garage wall into their own living room? The stories from years ago were always quite similar: �I was pressing the brake to the floor but the engine was roaring!� or even better �The harder I pressed the brake the faster the car went!� Uh, it sounds to me like you�re pressing on the gas pedal. To make matters worse, this mistake would be much more easily made in a Prius since the engine will not be roaring when you floor the gas pedal. If only the electric motor were engaged it would make almost no noise and even the small gasoline engine is pretty quiet it seems.

Hopefully time will tell, but I suspect that much like the claims years ago on standard vehicles, the supposed problems of �Prius sudden acceleration� will boil down to one simple thing: operator error, combined with the lack of willingness to admit that they could have made such a simple mistake.

paul h
paul h

The Prius is like many things in life, it has good intentions and means well, but doesnt deliver on its promises. These cars dont handle well, dont brake well, dont deliver the mpg they promise, the hybrid system still has lots of quirks and bugs, and you really dont help the environment all that much by driving one. Save the 5 to 10 thousand more dollars you spend for these cars compared to a similar gas engine economy car subcompact. A real economy car that delivers performance, power, handling, and has a good safety rating is the new 2009 Jetta clean diesel, lots of power and torque, 30-35 mpg in the city, and 40-50 mpg on the highway.

Matt
Matt

Honda > Toyota

bucky
bucky

Put a complex system in the hands of the inept, and you have a disaster in the making. This is a classid ID10T error in the software. The only question is just where the error originated - the programmer (Toyota) or the operator. The root cause is still a system that is too complex for everyday use in a wide variety of conditions by the average moron more interested in their cell phone conversation and the blinking and flashing displays than the road. The Prius is just technology for the sake of technology, and the buyers are just part of the test population.

Tim Lank
Tim Lank

Whoa, I thought I accidentally grabbed a Car & Driver when I glanced at your last cover. I guess I was shocked, but not surprised after reading the well written article. Shocked that Toyota was grossly mishandling this potential PR fiasco. They get a lot of traction from those floormats causing problems. This isn't the first time. Not surprised that these hybrid cars, which have all the disadvantages of internal combustion engined (ICE) vehicles, plus all the disadvantages of battery powered electric vehicles, plus all the disadvantages in the complexity of combining the two (hybrid) have technical difficulties. Car companies love these high margin vehicles. Greenies with extra money get to make an environmental statement by paying a premium for their wheels. No wonder these "Prions" send hate mail to critics; it must be quite irritating to pay extra for status and look foolish. That's what happens when a transportation appliance gets turned into a political statement.

As for minimizing environmental impact, if your lifestyle can stand it, buy a new ICE subcompact that gets 35-45 MPG and drive it for 250K miles or 20 years. There are very few out there well engineered enough to make this practical. Toyota has a few.

I was taught in high school driver ed that the fix for a racing engine was to turn off the key, being careful not to engage the steering lock (actually they didn't have steering locks when I was in high school). Does a Prius not have a key?

Regarding the Prius troubles, the first law of technology is "Never buy anything with a low serial number". The second law of technology- "Must be bad software".

Mike Wells
Mike Wells

I forgot to add that these morons who coast to a stop are probably using MORE gas because the car charges the batteries two different ways: regenerative braking and also with the gas engine. Regenerative braking uses energy generated during braking to charge the batteries, and without it, the gas engine has to waste more of it energy to charge the batteries.

Mike Wells
Mike Wells

It's these fucking Hyper-Milers that drive me nuts. Talk about scary-they will actually turn their cars off in order to coast to a stop and not use gas while stopping. They lose braking and steering functionality at this point. Even if there IS a direct linkage, have you ever been driving a car with power brakes or steering and had the engine die? Steering and braking are exponentially harder than even on a non-power assist vehicle.

And then you have the asshats who let the car accelerate at its own speed, not using the gas. These guys are fun when they're doing 15 MPH under the speed limit and you come over a hill or around a curve at the speed limit and almost plow into them. I had this happen outside of Flag on one of my last drives back to AZ. The last big hill North of town, I come over one of the ridges and there's a stupid prius tooling along at something like 45 MPH, no flashers, nothing. Thank God there was a passing lane and no oncoming traffic.

I'm all for cutting down on smog, I'd even consider a hybrid if my commute was in-town(These things aren't substantially better than regular high mileage vehicles on the freeway), but I'm not going to turn into a prick that endangers everyone on the road.

Andrew L. Ayers
Andrew L. Ayers

Look at me, I'm an attention whore...

I wouldn't say all Prius owners are like this, but a few of those interviewed for the article seemed like this was truthfully the main reason they bought the vehicle. Sure, they may go on about how it is good for the environment, or better for their pocketbook, but the truth is it's just another status symbol. These people were led (by the media and pop culture, mainly) to purchase this vehicle, just like they were led to purchase Hummers: Not because they needed them, but because they could feel as if they were better than others around them.

You want to really "save the environment" and "lower your spending" while "reducing your carbon footprint"? Buy used. Perform your own maintenance. Keep the tire pressure up and be light on the pedal. Then drive that thing until it won't run any longer, then put a rebuilt engine in it and drive it some more. I currently own a 1994 4-banger Ranger 2WD that has close to 190,000 miles on it and still runs great. I have no car payment. Apply the mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair" to everything in your life, and that will show real environmentalism. If you aren't doing a lot of your shopping at thrift stores, in my opinion you're doing it wrong.

Now, as far as the braking and acceleration issues being exhibited by the Prius that Toyota won't acknowledge; these problems are indeed scary. I honestly don't know what the problem really is, but I suspect a "drive by wire" problem. I suspect that when you press on the gas or brake pedal, that there isn't an actual physical linkage between the pedal and the engine (or brakes), but rather the pressure instructs the onboard computer what to do, and it calculates whether to apply actual brakes, or whether to use regenerative braking, or a combo. With the gas pedal, it would be the same thing, with the computer determining whether and how to mix the power from the electric motor vs. the engine. It sounds like bad code, possibly what is known as a "race condition" causing a lockup in one or both systems (possibly at the same time). Whatever the cause, Toyota needs to fix it. Until it is fixed, Prius drivers are risking their lives and the lives of others just to be able to say "Look at Me!!!"...

 
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