By SHOLNN FREEMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 16, 2005; Page B5
Some buyers of Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius gas-electric hybrid cars are complaining that their vehicles are stalling or shutting down at highway-driving speeds, a problem Toyota attributes to software problems in the sophisticated computer system.
Toyota said the problem involves Prius cars from the 2004 model year and some early 2005 models. The U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has logged 13 reports of a Prius stalling or stopping unexpectedly. Edmunds.com, a popular vehicle-information and shopping site, has had 13 individuals post complaints in a Prius forum about the car suddenly shutting off. No injuries or fatalities have been linked to the problem.
In one complaint, a driver told NHTSA that the car shut down while driving at 60 miles an hour. The Prius continued to lose power as the driver pressed the accelerator. The car had to be towed back to the dealership for repairs. In another report to NHTSA, an owner complained that the car’s computer system shut down in fast traffic, while the owner’s daughter was driving the car. “Her life was in danger,” the owner reported. Police in the area helped to divert traffic around the car, according to the complaint.
A NHTSA spokesman said the agency is monitoring the complaints, but no formal investigation has been initiated.
Toyota spokesman Sam Butto said the auto maker identified a “programming error” in the computer systems of 23,900 Prius cars last year. He said that last May Toyota sent owners of those cars service warnings telling them to go to their dealerships for a software upgrade. But he said he wasn’t sure how many people went in to receive the hour-long fix.
He and another Toyota spokesman said the auto maker isn’t sure if the latest problems associated with 2004 Prius models involve buyers who never got the upgrade or if an altogether different glitch is shutting the car down.
The Prius has been a big hit for Toyota as U.S. gasoline prices have steadily risen. To get the car, some buyers have endured long waiting lists and paid thousands of dollars above the car’s sticker price, which ranges from $21,000 to $26,000. Toyota has scrambled to increase production.
Introduced in 2000, the first versions of the Prius were criticized as too small and underpowered. Still, they spawned a cultlike following. When the 2004 model arrived with increased interior room and a peppier engine, demand took off. So far this year, Toyota has sold 34,200 Prius cars, more than doubling the sales of 13,600 in the same period a year earlier.
Hybrid vehicles combine a gas engine with an electric motor to increase fuel efficiency and decrease emissions. The Prius is estimated to average as much as 60 miles per gallon of gasoline.
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