Sometimes the cars accelerate on their own. Sometimes they stop dead. Drivers of the Prius have discovered they can be an unexpected adventure
*This article was altered on April 28, 2009.
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.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 toward Houston’s Galleria for a sales meeting. She has hated driving in the rain since a car wreck in college.
Traffic near the mall was congested but moving, and Riner kept the Prius pegged at 60 mph, constantly looking at the console to manage her fuel consumption.
Suddenly, she felt the car hydroplaning out of control, and when she glanced at the speedometer, she realized the car 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 if her new car had actually 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 while the Big Three failed and failed again to produce efficient vehicles.
The Prius is the status symbol of the geeky, green, environmentally conscious do-gooder, making it a favorite of the earthy elite. Its 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 car stomps out a troublingly deep carbon footprint.
Doug Korthof of Seal Beach was featured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? (as well as numerous OC Weekly articles) and, to this day, pickets the Toyota headquarters in Torrance. 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 Americans could be harming the planet, but also loyal Prius drivers who are crashing their cars through forests, garage doors and gas stations.
Take Lupe Egusquiza from Tustin. In September 2007, she was waiting in a line of cars 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 Stacey Josefowicz of Anthem, Arizona, who bought her new Prius in May 2007. A couple of months later, while 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 had run 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.”
Jaded Prius owners say there’s no resolution with Toyota—through their hometown dealer or corporate arbitration—and the company hasn’t lost or settled a single lawsuit concerning “unintended acceleration.”
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.”
* * *
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.
A year later, Toyota sold 100,000 Priuses for the first time, and sales more than doubled each of the first two years the second generation was built.
“He was just a brilliant engineer and was really for the hybrid. He educated a lot of people,” Kwong says.
Hermance died in the fall of 2006 after crashing his airplane into the Pacific Ocean.
* * *
Barbara Sherman, a 69-year-old retiree from North Carolina, bought a Prius just after Christmas in 2007 for her and her husband to drive around their retirement community of Winter Haven, Florida.
“They were a little more than I had anticipated them being, but we had pretty much made up our minds that we were going to buy one,” Sherman says. “I loved the car. It drove great and had a lot of pickup.”
An odd thing happened, however, on a trip she and her husband had taken to the family’s North Carolina home. Sherman had driven the Prius down a steep hill, on a road cut through some woods, to spend an afternoon parked along a riverbank. The Prius slipped on some gravel, and its wheels just stopped.
“I thought we were going to have to get someone to tow us out, and that would’ve been a long walk to town, but we were able to back down the hill and get a bigger running start. We managed to get it out and just decided to never take it down there again,” Sherman says. “That was the first problem.”
The second problem happened while Sherman was driving into Winter Haven, waiting at a stop sign to turn onto a busy street. The traffic cleared a bit, and Sherman sped up to merge but quickly had to hit the brakes for an approaching stoplight. But her Prius kept going.
“It was very scary, but finally, after stomping it a few times, I did stop without hitting anyone,” Sherman says.
The dealer told her that the floor mat probably caught the gas pedal, but she says the “floor mats were nowhere near the accelerator.”
“Of course they made excuses, and then they said something about the computer—all gibber-jabber,” Sherman says. “I told them, ‘Garbage! I was driving it, and I know what happened.’ There definitely is a problem.”
She never thought about getting rid of the Prius because “I loved the car and still like the car very much.”
Many auto reviewers have also raved about the Prius. In 2008, the car ranked second in overall quality in a survey by J.D. Power and Associates, and it won the IntelliChoice Best in Overall Value in its class award.
Gas mileage is another big draw of the Prius, and “hypermilers” take that to the extreme. Dan Bryant, a Houston computer engineer, turned driving his car into a full-time hobby. He installed aftermarket gauges and an engine kill-switch—ordered from Japan—that makes driving seem like playing a video game, Bryant says, with a goal of getting the most mileage out of a tank of fuel.
He’s constantly shifting the car to neutral, switching off the engine and looking at his gauges to track things such as pressure on the gas pedal and engine temperature, both of which affect gas mileage. Bryant coasts into stops without brakes when he can. He usually averages about 60 to 70 miles per gallon, but he got 91 out of his best tank and took a picture to prove it.
“When you’re only buying 40 gallons of gas [per month], $2 a gallon or $5 a gallon is basically the difference between eating out a couple of nights,” Bryant says. “The biggest thing about it was that we didn’t really notice it.”
* * *
Such numbers don’t sway Doug Korthof, who still sings the praises of the General Motors EV1.
GM produced the electric cars from 1996 to 1999, and Korthof leased one until 2003, when all EV1 “owners” were forced to return the cars, which were later destroyed by GM. The controversy surrounding the company’s decision is the focus of Who Killed the Electric Car?
One good thing about the Prius, Korthof says, is that it keeps nickel-metal hydride batteries—used in some EV1s—alive. In 2000, oil giant Chevron acquired the patents to the sophisticated batteries Toyota used in its all-electric RAV4, but as a result of a lawsuit settlement, Toyota can still use the technology in its hybrid vehicles.
Furthermore, Korthof says, any car that focuses on energy conservation, even if it’s “no solution to oil,” is a good thing.
“The Japanese are very clever. The Prius is actually a heuristic device to teach Americans about energy efficiency,” Korthof says. “Everybody who drives a Prius can see their energy usage right on the screen, so people drive a little more conscious.”
* * *
Ted James was a believer—not only in the Prius, but also in Toyota.
About the time the Prius was released in America, James, a middle-school teacher from Eagle, Colorado, received a $10,000 Toyota Time grant that was given to 35 math teachers around the country to develop inventive programs.
James used his money to buy equipment to monitor the water quality of a local watershed, and his students used advanced math techniques to analyze the data they collected.
In 2002, Toyota paid for James, along with the other Time winners, to travel to company headquarters and talk about their projects. During a lunch break one day, Toyota executives introduced the group to the Prius. Each teacher was outfitted with one of the hybrids for a day of driving around Torrance.
“I thought they were the coolest thing ever,” James says. He and his wife, Elizabeth, who teaches at an elementary school, bought their first Prius three years later. “I was very proud because we were the first teachers in the parking lot to be sporting a Prius.”
On Aug. 10, 2006, Elizabeth was driving toward Denver to catch an early-morning flight. Near the small town of Lawson, she pressed the brakes to slow down, and when she let off the pedal, the Prius took off. The car wouldn’t slow down “no matter how hard I pressed on the brake,” so Elizabeth used her left foot to slam down the emergency brake. Nothing.
The brakes spewed blue smoke from the back of the car, and when Elizabeth glanced down, the speedometer displayed 90 mph, and the Prius was rocketing toward a car in the slow lane. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Elizabeth whipped around that car along the shoulder of the interstate, exited, ran a stop sign, passed a couple of people walking in the road and steered into a grassy field when the feeder cut to the left.
“She said she felt like the pilot of a plane that was trying to crash-land,” Ted James says. “So she was looking for a place to crash the car, and that was one of the things that was really tough: She thought she was going to die and had enough time to think about it.”
The Prius sped through a wooded area, clipped a weather-monitoring shed, flipped and landed in a river.
Elizabeth survived the wreck, but her legs and back were banged up; she’s still hobbled, despite a year’s worth of physical therapy. Scar tissue on her intestines requires her to drink MiraLAX for the rest of her life to ease stomach pains.
After the crash, Ted James enlisted the help of a childhood friend, attorney Kent Spangler (who practiced family law at the time and is now a magistrate in Fort Collins, Colorado), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth’s medical bills—about $15,000—paid and to have the smashed Prius examined for a cause of the wreck.
“You’d think Toyota would be interested in how their car functioned in that crash,” Ted James says. “My wife’s brother and sister owned Priuses, and we were really worried that this could happen to someone else. Toyota’s whole reaction was really disconcerting. It was like deny everything.”
Toyota’s response was, in fact, minimal. In a letter to James, the company blamed the problem on excessive brake wear, stating, “We are sure she believes that her vehicle accelerated on its own; but our inspection of her vehicle did not reveal any evidence to support her allegations.”
Bobette Riner’s experience wasn’t much better. When her Prius died in front of the parking lot, she composed herself and started the car again because she desperately needed to make her sales meeting. The Prius sputtered along for about a quarter-mile before shutting down again “at a spot where people coming from the Galleria couldn’t totally plow into me.”
The next day, she went to the dealership to find out what happened with her car, and the technician told her, “We know what’s wrong with it; you were out of gas.”
Riner was certain her gas tank wasn’t close to empty, and she wasn’t concerned that the Prius shut down; it was the sudden jolt of speed that scared her.
“That was more than being out of gas,” Riner says. “How do you explain it suddenly being 84 mph?”
* * *
Stories from Prius owners involving unintended acceleration are fairly common; one of the first places to publish them was the website www.consumeraffairs.com, which collects about 400 complaints per day that are read by editors and stored in an online database.
“One of the trends we started to see was that there were odd things going on with the Prius, not only with the acceleration, but also with loss of traction on slippery surfaces,” says Jim Hood, a former Associated Press writer who now owns the website. “The Prius was something a little different when it came out, so we paid a little more attention to it than if it were a brand-new pickup or something.”
The site’s automotive writer, Joe Benton, wrote about unintended acceleration for the first time in the summer of 2007, telling the story of a woman in Everett, Washington, whose Prius took off while she was on the interstate and wouldn’t slow down even as she repeatedly pumped the brakes.
Hood received hate mail from Prius owners when the negative story was posted. “They’re zealots and religious about their cars,” Hood says. “Quite honestly, we don’t give a damn about anything. If people want to drive those things, fine by us, but our job is to criticize and nitpick.”
Then the other horror stories rolled in.
One came from Richard Bacon, a Tacoma, Washington, resident who wrote, “This week, our 2008 Prius tried to kill me twice.” Bacon’s Prius died while he was driving up his snowy driveway, causing him to slide into oncoming traffic “that just missed hitting me broadside.”
Then he was driving with his wife, merging into traffic at 45 mph, and he crossed over a patch of snow. The Prius locked up, and Bacon lost control and skidded toward a 30-foot drop down the side of the road. “Only a snowbank kept my wife and me from serious injury or death,” he wrote.
Toyota recalled the floor mats about two months after the first story from Hood’s website. From a company press release: “If properly secured, the All Weather Floor Mat will not interfere with the accelerator pedal. Suggested opportunities to check are after filling the vehicle’s tank with gasoline, after a carwash or interior cleaning, or before driving the vehicle. Under no circumstances should more than one floor mat ever be used in the driver’s seating position: The retaining hooks are designed to accommodate only one floor mat at a time.”
It appears that just one person is currently in litigation with Toyota concerning unintended acceleration. Art Robinson, the man involved in that crash, wouldn’t comment (saying his lawyer has advised him not to), but a Toyota spokeswoman confirmed the lawsuit, declining to comment further.
Apparently, hours after Robinson purchased his 2005 Prius in Tacoma, Washington, the car began to handle funnily, and as he was driving back to the dealership, the car took off. Robinson stomped on the brake and the emergency brake, but the car wouldn’t slow down. He exited the freeway and shot through an intersection safely, but then lost control and drove through a convenience store. Robinson escaped before the Prius and the building burst into flames.
“It happened so fast I didn’t have time to be scared then,” Robinson told a Seattle news station.
Despite Elizabeth James’ injuries, the couple never pursued a lawsuit against Toyota, and even if they wanted to, the Colorado statute of limitations ran out last summer.
“I’m not out to get Toyota; we owned three Toyota vehicles at one time, and we still have a 2000 Sienna and a 2006 Corolla that we’ll drive until they die because they’re good cars,” Ted James says. “The fact that she could crash at 90 mph, well, she’ll say, ‘First the Prius tried to kill me, and then it saved my life.’”
* * *
It doesn’t take much of a pitch to sell a Prius, says Johnny “J-Mac” McFolling, a salesman at Houston’s Mike Calvert Toyota.
McFolling wouldn’t drive a Prius, he says, because he’s a big man and everyone in his family is big, too, but he loved the car when they all sold at “sticker price or higher.”
“You can tell a Prius owner, not by looking at them, but as soon as they start talking,” McFolling says. “You don’t have to sell a Prius; they’re already sold when someone comes through that door.”
Those buyers haven’t been around much in the past six months, and McFolling says Prius sales have dropped 90 percent since summer, while truck sales have increased. The dealership was selling 25 Priuses per month and could’ve moved more if Toyota had delivered them, but those days are gone.
Mike Calvert sold Riner her Prius, but after the technician told her the car took off because she was low on gas, she wanted nothing to do with it.
The dealer offered about $12,000 less than what she’d paid for the car, explaining he couldn’t sell a Prius to save his life.
“He said, ‘The market is soft for Priuses because of gas prices,’” Riner says.
The other owners of runaway Priuses have fared differently:
Sherman loves her Prius and is keeping it until it takes off again on its own.
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The Jameses kept their mangled Prius for as long as possible, hoping Toyota would take it to a laboratory for examination, but when their insurance company pressured them, they let it go. Ted James bought a new Volkswagen Jetta six-speed, so if it goes wild, “all you have to do is push in the clutch.”
The Prius that Riner bought brand-new sat in her garage for a while because she hoped Toyota would change its mind about its offer. She just recently set an arbitration date with the company, and when she had the option of meeting at a dealership or fighting the case through the mail, she chose not to meet.
Unless she eats the $12,000, she’s stuck with a car she’s afraid to drive.
“There’s some liberal embarrassment here,” Riner says. “I hear all the time, ‘This is the first. This is the best. This will save the world.’ But what are we getting guilted into?”