Green Update–>The Runaway Prius, and Some Thoughts on EVs

Just what Toyota needed: a Prius that took off on its own, hit speeds up to 94 mph (I didn’t think they went that fast), and took a San Diego man for a harrowing 30-mile ride. It’s all over the news today because, in part, Toyota just finished testifying again that the acceleration problem was under control, saying that “the causes are well known and that remedies are addressing many of them.”

Wait a minute, “many of them”? How reassuring, particularly after some cars are experiencing the problem even after being fixed. The company put together a group of experts on Monday to refute a study by an Illinois professor (which did seem kind of bogus), but the meeting apparently raised as many questions as it answered.

Then comes poor James Sikes, who told his story to the California Highway Patrol and the news cameras.

Edmunds’ Inside Line thinks his story may be a phony, but their “evidence” of such is pretty flimsy. However, they do have a video showing how easy it is to put the Prius in neutral even while accelerating. I wonder if this would be true if, for instance, the cruise control was taking over (which may have been what happened to Sikes). Any engineers out there want to offer an opinion?

We have devoted, some would say, too much space on this blog to the sudden acceleration issue already, but it brings to mind the fact that hybrids and EVs—which many consider the cars of the future—are not immune to things like driver error and safety failures. There is no getting away from the downside of technology.

A recent article (and book) claims we need to rethink and redesign the automobile, which has remained pretty much the same since Henry Ford. The key is not just the kind of sustainability carmakers are already thinking about and presenting us with in current hybrids and EVs; it’s rethinking and reengineering personal transportation entirely. From the ground up.

For the present, carmakers are placing their bets on hybrids first, to be followed by EVs. Yet there are certain “inconvenient truths” about electrics that everyone needs to acknowledge. A good explanation of these appeared on MPGomatic in January, and I recommend it to you. If nothing else, it illuminates the roadblocks that have to be overcome in the near future. For the long term, cars will likely become very different animals.

Give us your thoughts on the runaway Prius. Is Sikes making it all up, and if so, why?

—jgoods

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5 Comments

  1. The whole time I was reading this article I was thinking how easy it would be for someone to avoid a speeding ticket now by blaming the car. I wonder what percentage of the runaway acceleration claims have been verified.

    I don’t dispute that there may be some genuine claims, but surely there must be some way to stop a car that’s engine is running away. I’m not so sure about the hybrids though. I believe they have computer controlled electric motors directly connected to the drive wheels without a clutch in between. If this is the case, maybe basic safety regulations should necessitate a big red emergency disconnect button on the dash somewhere that cuts off the motor power feed and connects them through a ridiculously simple secondary system that is also connected to the brake pedal, so the driver can bring the car to a controlled stop.

    Of course, they could also go the way of the space program, albeit at additional cost, and have redundant systems. I remember from a long time ago hearing that spacecraft are designed with three independent control systems that each calculate their own mission critical parameters, then the three results are compared and if one differs it is vetoed.

  2. Even here in rural, mountainous West Virginia, I don’t believe it is possible to go 94 mph for 30 miles and not get stopped by a state trooper, run into another car, or negotiate even the slightest turn. I’ve driven the freeways around San Diego and find it inconceivable that you could dart in and out of traffic at that speed for so long without doing harm to you or someone else. Indeed there is something fishy here. Even OJ wasn’t going anywhere near that fast.

  3. It’ll probably come out that Sikes is a former NUMMI employee and upset at Toyota or was hired by another automaker to make his claim. Something seems fishy about his story.

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