Posts Tagged ‘Prius’


The Prius Triplets: Saving Gas and Avoiding Lightning

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon


            A decade ago, when gas was reasonably cheap, and SUVs approaching the size of buses dominated the roadways, Toyota did something unusual.

Instead of following the prevailing wisdom and building bigger, they came out with a new class of small cars, the Toyota Prius hybrid, whose claim to fame was that it could get about 50 miles per gallon. The Prius was about the size of the popular Honda Civic, but had a bit less space in the back because there was this large battery pack under the rear seat and trunk. It was an innovative, dual motor system in which the car could drive at low speeds – under 30 miles per hour – on battery power and an electric motor and at higher speeds with a standard gasoline engine. At that time, however, consumers openly wondered if the batteries could explode, if drivers could be electrocuted, and if the dual system would last 50,000 miles or more.

And it was an open bet whether fuel economy would sell in a market where Detroit automakers scoffed at the technology and the five-mile-per-gallon Hummer and 12 MPG Cadillac Escalade were major status symbols.

A decade later, the Hummer is gone, Detroit is climbing out of bankruptcy, the Escalade comes in a hybrid version and the pioneering Prius closes out April with the sale of its one millionth American Prius. Toyota could have stopped with minor adjustments to the Prius, now a slightly larger, four-door model with a better lithium-ion battery.

            But to mark the occasion, Toyota decided it was time for the Prius to develop siblings. So at the New York International Auto Show, the Prius is flanked by a larger, hybrid crossover model called the Prius V, and a tri-engine, plug-in electric Prius.

There is little new in the iconic standard Prius which has set the standard for fuel efficiency with a 50 MPG average. The Prius V is, literally, a stretch. It looks pretty much like the standard Prius – resembling a rolling trapezoid – only gown up.  In size, it’s a Prius and a half, and intended to more comfortably meet standard family needs. In that arena, it has a lot more room and electronic gadgets while delivering an estimated EPA rating of 42 MPG in city driving and 38 MPH on the highway.

The second row seats are versatile in that they can fold flat to enlarge the cargo area, or recline 45 degrees for more comfortable napping. For entertainment, the V has Toyota’s new “Entune” multimedia system which provides distracting links to the internet in addition to a wide variety of music. The car offers XM satellite and HD radio in addition to a CD player and connections for iPods, MP3 players, smart phones, and USB drives. The system accesses the internet for Bluetooth streaming and, using Bing, will locate and read your email and allow limited voice responses.

The crossover field is a crowded one. The Prius V will have to try and elbow room between Asian competitors like the Honda Crosstour and Nissan Murano – which now has a convertible model – or slide upscale to the Cadillac SRX.

The company is seeking a different niche with the new Prius Hybrid Plug-in electric vehicle. Toyota is circulating 160 of them around the country at this time, gathering user feedback in anticipation of a formal launch next year. The initial Prius was revolutionary in that Toyota envisioned and developed a car which could fully operate on two different power plants. The new plug-in goes a step further, allowing you to drive with three power systems.

The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about an hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor. The difference is incremental. What the 13 electric power only miles do is extend the miles per gallon average of the car.

Wade Hoyt, Toyota’s east coast director, who commutes 42 miles each way into Manhattan from the northern Westchester County suburbs, said “my commute includes the hilly, twisting Depression-era Taconic and Saw Mill Parkways, Manhattan’s Westside Highway and congested mid-town traffic. In a conventional 2011 Prius, I can average about 51 mpg into town (downhill on balance) and 48 mpg or so going home (uphill on balance).
“With a full charge in the Prius PHV, I got 73.2 mpg going into Manhattan!  That’s what those 13 gas-free miles did for me. Since I can’t charge up at the parking garage near my office, I was reduced to 48 mpg on the return trip. That resulted in a round-trip average of 61 mpg – an 11.5 mpg or 23% improvement over the “normal” Prius on my 84-mile commute.  A 20-mile trip could have given me about 145 mpg, and a 10-mile trip infinite mileage!”

There is no free electric lunch, however.   The use of a plug-in electric car on a regular basis can boost the cost of a household’s electric bill by up to 50%. At times when gasoline prices are hovering around $2 per gallon, the additional electric costs – particularly in high priced areas like the New York metropolitan region – it may be cheaper to drive a regular Prius or other hybrid. The gasoline vs. electricity cost equation can change, however, as gas prices float towards $5 per gallon.

As with anything new, the plug-in takes getting used to. It has a lithium-ion battery which is “filled” in about three hours on a standard, 110 volt plug, and about half that time with a 220-volt outlet.  I plugged the car into the garage outlet when I retired for the evening. The car sat quietly in the driveway, the long cord snaking under the garage door, quietly drinking. Then, as the nightly news was heading into sports, I realized it was pouring rain and there was this rolling electrical machine in the driveway. While I wouldn’t give a second thought to leaving Christmas lights outside in the snow and rain, this felt odd. So I unplugged it.

As it stands, Toyota says the existing system is as safe as the typical outdoor plugs used for lighting displays, though they recommend the charging be done indoors. But, to reassure motorists, the car’s plug is being redesigned for the 2012 model to make it even more waterproof.



Running on Empty: Toyota and the Disappearing Credibility

February 22, 2010


By Roger Witherspoon

            As Jerry Meyers sees it, the senior management of Toyota would love to do the right things for the company, for their customers, and for the regulatory agencies – if only they had a clue as what the right course of action was.

            “What they should do is easy,” said Meyers, the former CEO of American Motors, the Detroit auto company which produced Jeeps and small Rambler sedans, and openly mocked the “gas guzzlers” of the Big Three until it was bought by Chrysler in 1987. “Every crisis management expert will tell you to be transparent. You have to be quick, get the bad news out, get it all out, bury it and move ahead. That’s what every crisis management expert will tell you.

            “But back at the ranch, it’s a lot more difficult than that. It assumes perfect knowledge. It assumes you know what is wrong – or very close to it – and you know what to do about it and you can, in fact, get it done.  None of that is ever assured or, in the real world, are clear and crisp and easy for management to get their arms around. But they have evidently run into something that is so puzzling that they don’t quite know what is wrong, and they don’t know quite what to do, and they don’t know if they can do it even if they did know what needed to be done.”

            Finding the right path will be difficult for Toyota which is being tugged in several directions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) yesterday launched its fifth, separate, simultaneous investigation into possible procedural, technical, and criminal violations by the giant car company in its handling of four different problems throughout the Toyota fleet.  The latest investigation is into the manner in which Toyota handled complaints that the power steering failed in some 2009 – 2010 Matrix and Corolla models.

            The investigation launched Thursday came two days after NHTSA announced it is seeking documents from Toyota to determine when the company learned of problems with accelerator pedals that either stuck in one position, preventing the car from slowing down, or inexplicably increased accelerated. Under federal law, companies selling cars in this country have to notify NHTSA within five days of discovering a safety defect, and then launch a recall. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $16.4 million, the maximum permitted under the statute. The probe looks into the timelines involved in three Toyota recalls of some 8 million vehicles and the production line shut down of several models affected by accelerator, steering, and brake problems.

            The defect investigation, said a NHTSA spokeswoman, is conducted in two parts: a preliminary evaluation and an engineering analysis. The four month evaluation determines if Toyota properly looked into and categorized consumer complaints. If the evaluation finds there may be a safety issue, the inquiry moves into the engineering phase in which NHTSA conducts its own engineering tests to determine the scope of the problem and its danger to the motoring public.

            This is a departure from the agency’s past relations with the Japanese automaker. Previous investigations have relied on Toyota’s assertion that acceleration problems result from mechanical issues, primarily sticking pedals and shifting floor mats.

            It is also an unusual microscope for a company which has the fourth least number of complaints – after the Smart ForTwo, Mercedes, and Audi –out of the 40,000 filed monthly with the federal transportation agency

            In addition, at least three congressional committees have announced they will hold hearings into Toyota’s actions in handling the various technical problems, and the oversight provided by NHTSA. The regulatory agency has come under the Congressional microscope because during the Bush administration, safety complaints about Toyotas were essentially left to the company to resolve.

            But a company can only resolve issues if it really knows what it is doing and is open to the possibility that its core engineering expertise might be flawed.

            “They built a public perception of a firm that paid great attention to detail, very high quality, and very customer conscious,” said Meyers, now a professor of management and organization in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “That’s all crumbling down now.

            “They are fast building a reputation over the last 90 days of being slow, inept, opaque, and insensitive. That’s a reputation they built in 90 days, which is overcoming, for the moment, the reputation of the last 30 years.”

          Meyers, as a former auto industry CEO, has more than a little sympathy with his counterpart at Toyota since the company, in his view, makes great cars.  “I drive a Lexus ES 350,” said Meyres, a lanky six footer. “It’s the finest car ever made.”

            From Toyota’s perspective, the current spate of problems are not systemic – they just happen to be coming to a head all at once. John Hanson, Toyota’s national manager for environmental safety and quality communications, the pedal problems forcing the first two recalls were separate matters.

            “We are in a climate where the term unwanted acceleration is very broad, with the media reports about all manner of situations where vehicles are out of control,” Hanson stated.

            The pedal entrapment by the loose floor mats “did involve high speed injuries and death,” he said. That was different from the sticking pedals, he said, “though they are often, unfortunately melded together. Both recalls involve the accelerator pedal, but for different reasons and with different results.”

            Toyota is even more frustrated with its latest recall of Prius models with brakes that appear to temporarily fail when the car hits a pothole or goes over a rough stretch of road.

            In reality, said Hanson, the anti-lock braking system and its accompanying, electronic stability and traction control system “is functioning as it was designed, but appears it is more aggressive than previous generations with regards to predicting the pending loss of traction.”

            In essence, Toyota has designed a braking system whose computer brain can decide to overrule the driver and refuse to apply brakes as ordered when the driver hits the brake pedal. That does not, he said, mean the car has a loss of brake control. But the control is in the silicon network of the computer chip, not the foot of the motorist.

            “The new 2010 has the ability to look further ahead when it compares what your foot is telling the pedal to do and what it senses between the road and the tires,” Hanson explained. “The computer makes a decision early in the cycle as to what is best when the tire goes over a bumpy road or pot hole and is unweighted.

            “The computer compares that with what the driver would do – such as tap the brakes – and is saying ‘I don’t think I want to give it that much brake pressure because if I do I will lose traction’. So it ignores the brake instruction and maintains control as it deems best. That scares people because they don’t know what it is doing.”

            The electronic brain in the car, which can overrule the living one behind the wheel, is part of an ongoing effort to develop smart cars approaching the nearly-human Audi ferrying Will Smith in the science fiction movie “I Robot.” Toyota already has systems with dashboard cameras trained on the driver’s pupils that sound alarms if the computer feels the driver is drifting off to sleep. Its high end Lexus sedan will already park itself, and the cars warn drivers when they are veering out of their lane – a useful feature during rainstorms at night when dotted lines are difficult to see.

            To the company, then, engineered safety systems are not a threat, even if they can make motorists uncomfortable.

            But confidence in its engineering prowess hurts Toyota when changes are made and motorists are not alerted. The latest recall, involving the steering in the Matrix and popular Corolla compact sedan, was deemed significant enough that Toyota altered the system on new cars being produced – but did not alert existing owners to a potential problem. But that is part of the insular atmosphere at Toyota and over confidence in their technological ability.

            “From their point of view,” said Jeff Liker, Professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, “if they determine that a problem is not a safety issue, but it’s a drivability or customer satisfaction issue, then they are not under any obligation to tell the public.

            “Part of the disagreement between people on the outside who are now critics of Toyota, and people on the inside who are engineers is that the people on the outside think there are safety issues and the people inside Toyota do not.”

            Liker, who has studied Toyota for the past 25 years and is the author of “Toyota Culture: the Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way”, said once the firm’s engineers determine a problem is not a safety issue, the company will make a “running change” at the factory but see no need to go public and mention the complaints or the remedy. Toyota is not alone in that regard.

            “The Ford Fusion Hybrid had a brake hesitation problem,” said Liker, “and they did not recall the vehicle. They put out a technical service bulletin and told the dealers that if somebody comes in with a complaint, this is what you should do.

            “The only reason Toyota had a recall was because of all the political pressure. They are under a microscope and everything looks negative. And NHTSA is under pressure because they are accused of being too soft on Toyota.”

            With Toyota, the public perception is that their judgment is faulty when it comes to deciding what is or is not a safety issue. “In the case where somebody clearly crashed and clearly it is because of the vehicle, that is a clear cut safety issue,” said Liker. “But there was a GM study covering a 10 year period which found that in 98% of the cases where there is an accelerator accident it is because of driver error. People think they have a foot on the brake when they actually have it on the accelerator.”

            Still, Toyota could have avoided the crisis if it assumed the worst and acted on the possibility that its engineering systems were faulty, rather than insist that the accident victims were to blame. And that is where their public image crashed.

            Toyota was caught, said Liker, between insisting that the problems lay with mechanical systems or inattentive drivers, or stating that they sold unsafe cars. “At that point, it was a no-win situation for them.”

             Meyers, who headed American Motors when its flagship Ambassador sedans had runaway accelerators triggered by faulty cruise commands, said Toyota’s public image will continue to be battered until their multiple technical problems are solved.

            “They can’t figure it out,” said Meyers. “The only thing they should be doing is getting at the root cause of the sudden acceleration and nail it. Once it’s nailed, do a fix, then tell the world that you found it, we are going to fix it immediately and irrevocably, and resources are incidental. They are probably digging like crazy to find it.”


Toyota Prius: Leading the Hybrid Pack

January 4, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

            There are few cars which have come along over the years and defined a change in the industry as much as the compact Toyota Prius. This was the car that showed what the potential of a hybrid could be, and it met with predictable scorn from its American and foreign competitors.

            It was small, the rear seats were uncomfortable, and there was the nagging fear – partly because it was new and partly because of whispers spread by competitors – that those battery packs were going to blow up. The criticism of the interior space had some validity; the rest was just jealousy.

            But the Toyota had something going for it: advanced technology which set it apart form all the rest of the car makers, and word of mouth advertising about that persistent 50 miles per gallon. And it didn’t hurt that while Prius owners have driven into car accidents, there haven’t been any reports of battery fires and explosions – putting to rest the more colorful of the lies.

            But all things get old and Toyota, never one to sit on its laurels, has now updated its premier hybrid with the intention of eliminating the few complaints which had some basis in fact. And with the new 2010 Prius, they have engineered another trendsetter.

            This Prius still has a 50 miles per gallon rating and, with careful driving, that figure can be pushed up considerably closer to the 100 MPG mark. Without really trying hard, the test car produced 65 MPG, some of it during snow conditions which tend to drag the averages down.

            The new Prius is a mid-sized four-seater which will be able to compete in terms of comfort and appointments with the more established, standard brands in the field. It still has the iconic oval shape, but Toyota’s designers have widened the glass on the sides and extended the glass to include the trunk area. The effect is to feel as if you are driving in a glass bubble with comfortable leather seats. And those seats can be heated which, on snowy northeastern days, is appreciated. The pair in the rear have enough leg and head room for a pair of small NBA forwards, about six-foot four- inches – which means there is plenty of room for the rest of us. These seats also fold flat to enlarge a surprisingly ample trunk area.

            In addition, the Prius’ hatchback look is deceptive. There is a lot more room inside than is readily apparent. Teresa Doherty, who teaches earth science and information technology at Corcoran High School in Syracuse, N.Y., knew she wanted a car with low emissions and low gas mileage. But Doherty is the outdoors type, and her car had to have room for her nine-foot-long kayak, her mountain bike, and a week’s worth of camping gear – including the air mattress and tent.

            “I’m 5-foot 5,” she said, “And I wanted to make sure that when everything was folded down flat, there was room enough to sleep comfortably. The tent is fine, but when the weather doesn’t cooperate it’s nice to be able to sleep in the back of a car. I just put down the air mattress and stretch out.”

            So she took her bike and backpack to a showroom, folded the rear and front passenger seat of the Prius, and stretched out.  When she got home with her new Prius, she packed her bike and kayak.

            “I’ve camped out kin Main, the Adirondacks, and gone all across the country with my kayak, bike and gear,” Doherty said. “On warm nights I just use the air mattress and crack the windows and go to sleep.  It all fits just fine.”

            Under the hood is the combination 1.8 liter, four-cylinder, 98-horsepower gasoline engine and the 80-horsepower hybrid motors connected to each axel. The latter are capable of driving the car up to about 30 miles per hour on just the battery, which pretty much obviates the need for gas in city driving. The gasoline engine is not the strongest; it takes nearly 10 seconds to go from 0 – 60 miles per hour. By that time, mid-sized competitors like the Audi A-4 or Nissan Altima are long gone. But you pay a lot more than the Prius’ $32,000 sticker for the difference in speed. On the road, however, the Prius power package provides enough combined power to easily earn a speeding ticket if you want one.  More importantly, it handles as well on snow and ice as its more established competitors.

            Inside, the front seats are divided by an elevated console that is sort of an extended arm rest for the driver with a storage area underneath that easily handles pocket books or brief cases. It’s a design lifted from the Buick Rendezvous, but having the console serve as an arm rest actually works and feels better on the Prius. It is a design change from the earlier editions of the Prius, in which there was a traditional console and you could slide over it and change from the drivers’ seat to the front passenger seat. The raised center blocks that maneuver, though it is ergonomically easier on the right arm and hand, and the storage area under the console is more accessible to the driver.

            The major gauges are set into the center of the dash, hidden from the glare of the sun by a low, sloping roof, providing a peek-a-boo effect which, in this car, is appealing. Electronically, the Prius offers the types of gadgets you would demand in a car of this price range.

            It has a full navigation system with a touch screen and traffic and weather updates, an item borrowed from the Lexus line. For entertainment, the car has AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as a 4-disc, CD changer with the music brought to you through eight JBL speakers. There are also MP3 and iPod connections, as well as a Bluetooth system which is easy to set up.

            Toyota also added technology to its safety systems. Its cruise control is now radar guided, allowing you to maintain a set distance from the car in front, slowing down automatically when there is a slower car in front, and speeding up when it gets out of the way. The system also sounds an alert if the car drifts out of its lane – a useful system if one is tired and driving at night, or in really bad rain or snow when it is difficult to see the dotted lane lines on the road. If the system senses that a collision is about to occur, it automatically applies to brakes and tightens the seat belts to lessen the shock.

            As a car designed to maximize the potential of hybrid technology, the Prius is in a class of its own. The newest edition of the Prius continues setting standards which will be hard to match.


2010 Toyota Prius


MSRP:                                                                       $32,771

EPA Mileage:                        51 MPG City                          48 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   65 MPG Mixed


Performance / Safety:


1.8-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC aluminum engine producing 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque; 650-volt electric motor producing 80 horsepower and 153 pound-feet of torque; hybrid system net power 134 horsepower; electronic continuously variable transmission;  independent MacPherson front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; power rack and pinion steering;  stability and traction control; front and passenger side curtain and knee airbags; dynamic radar controlled cruise system; pre-collision system; lane change warning; 17-inch allow wheels; 4-wheel disc brakes.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/ XM satellite radio; voice activated navigation system with touch screen and XM traffic and weather; 4-disc CD player with 8 JBL speakers; Bluetooth; backup camera; MP3 and iPod connection; heated front seats; leather seats and steering wheel; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.

%d bloggers like this: