Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Runaway Prius

As a fairly recent Prius owner, the Curmudgeon is understandably concerned about all these reports that his world-saving automobile may suddenly shoot down the highway without warning.

So far, no problems. In fact, we've found a benefit: we can careen down the interstate at 90 miles per hour (about as fast as you can get a Prius to go) and if we get pulled over we'll just thank the officer for helping us bring the car under control.

As for the now infamous runaway Prius in California, it will be interesting to see what the investigation turns up. The driver, who seems like a reasonably normal fellow, has his story. Toyota has questioned some particulars, and the forensic evidence does give some pause.

At this point, we do believe the driver that after he hit the gas to pass another car, the accelerator seemed to get stuck and send him down the highway at an uncomfortable speed. After all, Prius drivers don't go that fast on their own--it totally ruins the gas mileage!

We also think he probably didn't hit the brakes nearly as hard as he thought. Toyota says the evidence suggests that he just tapped the brakes. Probably so. It appears undisputed that when the driver called 9-1-1 he was instructed to put the car in neutral, but refused--he claims he was afraid it would accidentally slip into reverse and cause the car to flip.

Now that's plain stupid. It's easy to put a Prius into neutral, and it's impossible to slam any car from full throttle into reverse. You can severely damage your transmission, but you won't suddenly flip the car.

Just to be on the safe side, we practiced putting our Prius into neutral the other day. No problem--we easily coasted to a stop.

Still, we can sympathize with someone who's car has done something it shouldn't, and who fears that if he does something else, it'll also do something weird and wild.

In any event, someone too scared to take the simple step of putting the car in neutral--after the 9-1-1 operator advises it--is also going to be timid on the brakes. In this case, we think something went wrong with the accelerator, but also that the driver compounded the problem, which is how this became such a spectacular incident.

Sudden acceleration is a vexing issue for auto safety regulators. Over the years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received complaints of sudden or unintended acceleration for almost EVERY make and model of vehicle on the road. Some vehicles get more complaints than others, but MOST cases end up being driver error. Sometimes a floormat gets involved, and sometimes something gets stuck in the pedal. But usually the driver stomps on the gas thinking it's the brake. With millions of drivers driving billions of miles, it happens. (But we don't think that's what happened in the California incident.)

Furthermore, once you get publicity for a particular vehicle being associated with unintended acceleration, the number of complaints goes up dramatically. Believe us, pick any car, and if NHTSA reported tomorrow that it was having Toyota-like problems, you'd have drivers coming out of the woodwork saying "yeah, happened to me."

There's some speculation that Toyota's problems have to do with the electronics in their vehicles. Maybe, but we'd take that with a huge grain of salt absent solid evidence. If there is such a problem, it should be replicable, and so far no one has replicated any such defect.

One problem Toyota does have: in many vehicles, the manufacturer has programmed it so that if both the accelerator and brake are depressed at the same time, the brakes will override. Toyota evidently has not used that feature, although it says it will now. We suspect they'll wish they'd adopted brake override some time ago.

Anyway, if you see us whizzing by in our Prius, give us a wave--we may be able to cut a good 2 hours off our drive to the beach in SC this summer!

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