The 2010 Toyota Prius, arguably the most important car in the Japanese maker’s line-up, is now under investigation for Unintended Brake Release, following mounting owner reports that the vehicle’s brakes might release after hitting a pothole or bump.
Toyota’s announcement comes more than a month after TheDetroitBureau.com’s Editor Ken Zino first reported on the Prius braking problem, citing complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as information provided by owners to this publication.
It appears the investigation may have been spurred by the Japanese Ministry of Transportation, however, which has been worried by complaints received about Prius which is, in Japan, now the country’s best-selling automobile.
For its part, Toyota still downplayed the problem, suggesting that it is a manner of “inconsistent brake feel,” rather than the actual release of brakes, as numerous owners have described to TheDetroitBureau.com.
“Toyota is currently in the process of confirming these reports and investigating the vehicle driving conditions under which the reported phenomenon occurs. It would be premature to comment until the investigation has been completed.”
Having a safety-related problem with Toyota is a serious matter, warn many analysts, beyond what such an issue might mean if it were to involve a Camry or Tundra. The Prius is the brand’s halo car, and it adds far more to Toyota’s image than the sales numbers alone would suggest, noted Dave Sargent, chief of automotive research for J.D. Power and Associates.
“It would be huge,” said Sargent, and it would further drive home to consumers the idea that Toyota’s current problems with safety are “less of a one-time problem and more like something systemic.”
Exactly what might be wrong with Prius brakes – if, indeed, there proves to be a problem? Curiously, there appears to be some differences in the reports filed by Japanese and American owners. In Japan, the Ministry of Transportation says complaints center around an “unusual” or inconsistent feel when a motorist tries to stop on slick surfaces. American motorists are reporting that Prius brakes can release entirely when the suspension is jarred.
It helps to understand that the hybrid’s brakes are a compound system; under light to moderate deceleration they “regenerate” energy that can be stored in the vehicle’s batteries. When more aggressive braking is required, a conventional hydraulic system takes over.
A senior source at Toyota told TheDetroitBureau.com that whatever the “issue” is, it very well may involve the Prius’s ABS, or anti-lock brake system, which is designed to prevent skids by rapidly pulsing the brakes on slick surfaces. That would make particular sense in terms of what Japanese owners describe, though it would be a little less clear why American Prius owners describe a different sort of situation, with full brake release. But either way, if the complaints are accurate, they could point to various sensors, mechanical devices or the brake system’s computer controller.
The latter is particularly worrisome as Toyota has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of electronic problems with its vehicles, at least as related to the two currently active recalls for “unintended acceleration.” In October, the maker blamed “carpet entrapment” for a problem with 3.8 million vehicles – a number that has grown to nearly 5.5 million vehicles since then. Meanwhile, another recall of vehicles with potentially sticky accelerators has now spread around the world.
But as recently as Monday, Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, insisted the company had found all potential causes of unintended acceleration, concluding, “In terms of electronics, we’ve been extensively testing and found no evidence of problems.”
While Toyota is now studying the reported issues with Prius, the company is coming under increasing fire from a number of quarters. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood declared the automaker, “safety deaf,” and declared the acceleration problems “the most serious safety issue” his department has faced.
Meanwhile, reports continue to come in about other problems with Toyota vehicles. As TheDetroitBureau.com reported yesterday, Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple and a personal computer pioneer, is reporting that an apparent cruise control glitch can cause his 2010 Prius to “go wild.” Wozniak said that, as of yesterday, he has been unable to reach senior Toyota officials to outline for them a problem he said he can reaily recreate – a rarity, as most electronic glitches appear to be intermittent, at most.
Toyota’s problems are beginning to take a toll on the company. Its already weakened stock dove more than 5% during the most recent trading on Japan’s Nikkei, and in the critical U.S. market, sales plunged 16% for January, even as Detroit automakers reported a collective double-digit gain. General Motors and Ford, along with a number of import brands, are now targeting Toyota owners with aggressive incentive programs.
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