Sunday, February 12, 2012

While I Was Sleeping

I tend to be in a different orbit nowadays. "Left field" is home. This is where I live. I was reminded of this over a week ago, when my Prius died.

I've owned this hybrid car for over 11 years. It was from the third shipment in 2001. I was one of the early adopters. In San Diego, during that first year, in any given parking lot, mine was the only Prius in the lot. I bought the car because I have always believed in "alternate" vehicles. I purchased the this car (my only and last new car purchase) because I believed in it, the technical design (which I know in detail), and its potential.

But while I was busy driving and enjoying this hybrid car, things did not go quite as I thought they would. After 217,000 miles and $7000 in botched, incompetent service I woke up to find the hybrid car dream never materialized. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I had hoped that the design would catch fire. I hoped that Toyota would open the hybrid design to after-market manufacturers. I imagined there would be an explosion of kits and upgrades and speciality repair shops and hybrid hackers (like hot rod enthusiasts of the 50s and 60s). But that never happened.

Instead, I saw Toyota still hoarding its design and trying to dominate the hybrid market. I experienced dealers charging me exquisite repair fees and leaving my car just as was when I drove in. Every time an alarm light went off, I had to take the care to the dealer and spend $75 to $104 just to have them hook up and read the code.

The way the Prius is designed, there is a network called CANbus. It contains almost every detail of the car's status and operation right down to the component level. All of this data can be displayed on the car's touch screen for the owner to see. But it isn't, and that is very costly for the owner. It's also very a convenient cash-cow for Toyota and their dealers.

In fact, there are few gauges in the Prius. There is not coolant temperature, no oil pressure, no tachometer, no battery voltage or charge status or anything else. You have a fuel gage and a speedometer and odometer. The rest is just a few idiot lights that are there to tell you to take the car to a dealer. One is a big orange triangle with an exclamation mark in the middle, the other is a turtle, yeah, you read it right, a turtle.

Even the most savvy user can't get enough information to make a decision. You could even do major damage just trying to get the car to the dealer. The car's displays tell you almost nothing. Even in my case, the fatal code that they read on my car was a fault in the electrical inverter (the car's electric drive) and its coolant pump.

Variable frequency drives like the one in my car are my trade. When it fails, you loose all electric power to the motor. But I can still drive my car, and the fault seems to be temperature related. But the dealer wants $5170 to replace the drive and the coolant pump. This was my moment of clarity. This is where I woke up and found out that my dream of hybrid cars never materialized.

My Prius is now in storage until I can repair it...and dump it. Ironically, I now drive a 2007 Prius (fully loaded) which is my company car. My boss drives a PriusV. I have already replaced my Prius with a 2003 Toyota Tacoma.

Please don't misunderstand where I'm going here. I believe in hybrid cars. I still think Toyota have the best design on the road. I would buy another hybrid in a heart beat, but something is wrong with the market which has grown up around this technology. That problem is that a healthy market not appeared.

The hybrid market has stagnated. As I said earlier, there is no after-market. The Prius remains locked-up by Toyota. They are controlling it with a death grip making themselves the only source for repair and diagnostics. Nobody else, to date, who offers a hybrid of this type has ever opened their product. In essence, you don't really don't have any option. You pay Toyota and you ask no questions.

When I bought my Prius, it was odd. Everybody was holding back. Since then, the price of a Prius has risen significantly and a mystique has been built around it. It has become a status symbol and a "green badge of honor."

Because of this, it has become a car most people can't afford. It has lost its technical aspect and become a status symbol. Almost nobody I have met in 11 and a half years understands how the car works or even knows how to drive it to the best effect. It doesn't matter to them. They purchased the car for its status appeal. The Prius has become a consumer prize and a consumer toy. This will be its undoing because it is becoming less accessible to the general market every model year. Even as a used car it is far too expensive to purchase and maintain. Let me explain this.

I bought an old Toyota Tacoma truck. For the cost of all the maintenance I have done on the Prius, I can completely replace the entire power train of that truck and have enough left over for a paint job and tires. The difference in fuel economy as it relates to cost is erased by the sheer cost of maintaining the Prius; not to mention its initial price.

Everybody works on Tacomas and I can shop for parts and service. I can also work on it myself. I can buy after-market equipment that can upgrade and enhance the Tacoma. in short, I can control the cost of ownership, and I am free to modify and improve my vehicle.

What I have spent over the last 11 years on the Prius exceeds the purchase price of the Tacoma. I could buy a good used car for the price they want to replace the drive in my old Prius. All of my fuel savings were erased in the last 8 months of ownership with costly and incompetent service. Do you see what I mean?

Have you seen the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car"? Well, the electric car is rebounding. But unless the hybrid car gets out of its cage and into the market, it will die. It will be marginalized as a "niche" for affluent status seekers and it will eventually fade.

It's time for 21st century "hot-rod" enthusiasts to emerge and start hacking used Priuses and developing that after-market. This will make the used Prius market viable and perhaps conversions and new affordable and repairable hybrids will emerge.

In the mean time, my Prius goes up for sale as soon as I can guarantee it's safe to drive or it will be scrapped. Either way, I probably will never own another Prius.


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  2. Interesting perspective. Because you bought one of the first Prii, you thought an aftermarket would develop, but this expectation has not yet been realized. I just got my Prius last year and bought it with the expectation that I would be taking it to the dealer for any repairs involving the unique hybrid system, and that these repairs would be expensive. I still bought the car because 1) I wanted to support hybrid technology which I see as a step in the right direction (not as the final solution), and 2) I calculated that, even if the car lasts only 200K miles, at 50mpg with gas averaging $4/gallon, I would save $32,000 in gas over the life of the car as compared with a car that got 25mpg.

    The nature of free markets is to "hack," reproduce, and eventually improve upon outstanding products. It will be interesting to see when and if this happens with the Prius.

  3. My Prius is not quit dead yet. I think it was misdiagnosed. I lost $7000 in the last 7 months on the car. So actually, I hung on to it too long and erased most of my financial benefit.
    I still intent to promote the technology. I'm looking to use a blog with a domain I own and see if I can attract some talent.
    BTW, your generation Prius is a lot better designed than mine.You will do better than I did. I just hung on to this one too long.