By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has two Prius investigations in its database from 2004 and 2005, but those involved the car’s cooling system. In 2007, Toyota recalled “faulty floor mats” in other models, but Prius owners were simply cautioned to make sure their floor mats were properly installed.
Another explanation from Toyota is simple driver error.
“You get these customers who say, ‘I stood on the brake with all my might, and the car just kept on accelerating.’ They’re not stepping on the brake,” says corporate Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong. “People are so under stress right now; people have so much on their minds. With pagers and cell phones and IM, people are just so busy with kids and family and boyfriends and girlfriends. So, you’re driving along, and the next thing you know you’re two miles down the road, and you don’t remember driving because you’re thinking about something else.”
Most owners, like Riner, deny they were mistaken about where the brake pedal is. At the same time, most aren’t looking to sue; they say they just want an explanation and a fair deal.
As Prius owner Ted James of Eagle, Colorado, puts it, “We’re not the kind of people to go through a lawsuit, and it’s not in our nature. Our concern was that no one else got hurt, that Toyota own up to its problem.”
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From 2000 to 2008, about 1.3 million hybrids were sold in the country, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Energy, and Priuses accounted for more than half of those sales. Every year except 2006, Priuses sold more than all other hybrid models combined.
“There are some people who want to drive a unique ‘top hat’ that looks different,” says Praveen Cherian, who worked in Detroit as Ford’s lead engineer on its new hybrid, the Fusion. “But we know there are people out there who don’t want to be driving a car, screaming, ‘Look at me! I’m an environmentally conscious guy.’”
Ford certainly hasn’t found those people, and like other American carmakers, the company has been trying to catch up to the Prius in recent years but has gained little or no ground. In 2008, the closest competitor to the Prius was Toyota’s Camry hybrid, followed by the Honda Civic. That year, Toyota moved about 159,000 Priuses; Honda sold about 31,000 of its Civic hybrids, and Chevy barely sold 2,000 of its Malibu hybrid.
If things had gone as planned, the American carmakers could be dominating the hybrid market. In 1993, the Clinton administration developed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, awarding federal funds to Chrysler, Ford and General Motors and giving the companies access to federal research agencies. The goal was to develop a car that got more than three times the gas mileage of full-sized vehicles already on the road.
Toyota was left out of the New Generation program, but it responded in 1994 by officially starting Project G21, its program designed to develop an environmentally friendly car. Three years later, the first Prius was released in Japan.
Chrysler, Ford and GM still hadn’t shown any New Generation prototypes by the end of the decade, but an unveiling was scheduled for January 2000 at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show. Each company rolled out a New Generation car. Heralded in newspaper accounts as a possible breakthrough, some of the designs certainly were radical, but, as it turns out, they were actually just for dreamers. After the show, the prototypes disappeared from public view.
The federal government had already fed more than $1 billion to the three automakers—at a time when the American manufacturers were still highly profitable—with few results. The New Generation program was a failure at best; Ralph Nader called it “corporate welfare at its worst.”
The project was killed by the Bush administration in 2002.
Meanwhile, Toyota was priming the U.S. market for the Prius, led by David Hermance, now known as the Father of the American Prius.
Hermance, who lived in Gardena, worked as the top hybrid engineer at Toyota when the car was released in the United States in 2000, and while he didn’t have a hand in designing the first-generation Prius, he furiously promoted and explained the car’s technology to the media and legislators.
In an interview with the website www.hybridcars.com in 2004, Hermance said his involvement with the Prius was an environmental mission for him, even if it wasn’t for “the mainstream-marketing folks.”
“I’m convinced that global warming is real, and that if we’re not principally responsible, we’re at least contributing to that,” he said. “I’d like to leave the planet a little better than I found it.”
The second-generation Prius, the model in production today, was directly engineered by Hermance, and he focused on making the car fun and peppy; his designs and marketing are credited for breaking the car mainstream. The new Prius was released in 2004, winning Motor Trend Car of the Year and a heap of other accolades.