Minnesota drivers are among those raising questions about the safety of Toyota vehicles, and one Minneapolis Prius owner worries his car is having problems, despite not being included in the recall.
New allegations of acceleration problems with Toyotas are raising even more questions for the Japanese automaker about the safety and reliability of its vehicles. Some of those complaints question the quality of recall repairs, and that is keeping alive the idea that faulty electronics could be to blame.
So far, technicians haven't been able to replicate the problems Mike Fried has experienced. He said they just keep telling him what he already knows, that "it's not a dangerous problem, so far, for me."
Fried has driven used Toyotas for years and he was thrilled when he could finally afford to buy a new 2005 Prius. He loves it, especially the great gas mileage he gets from the hybrid engine. But lately, he's had problems with braking.
"It was happening more in winter when there are more potholes and things like that, and ice ruts and stuff in the streets," he said. He claims braking on a rough surface causes the brakes to momentarily lose their grip, making it feel like the car is pushing forward. So when he heard about the recalls, Fried immediately took his car to a dealer to get checked out.
"I went right in about the floor mats and the other things," he said.
But his car wasn't on the recall list. Since then, he's convinced a few Toyota technicians to test drive the car but they haven't found anything wrong. He came to downtown St. Paul to demonstrate the problem to MPR.
He drove to a hilly street overlooking the Mississippi River. From the top of the hill the road descends sharply into a tunnel.
The surface is uneven where the street has been patched and it gets especially bumpy near the bottom where there are a lot of potholes. Driving over this section, Fried said he feels his brakes lose grip.
"The brakes have stopped working right after you push the accelerator and there is a surge instead of a braking," he said. "It's literally a fraction of a second to maybe a second and a half."
So far, the situation hasn't gotten out of control but he worries one day it might.
Like other new cars the Prius has anti-lock brakes, which engage and disengage as the system senses and reacts to tire slippage. After getting complaints about inconsistent brake feel on rough or slick surfaces, Toyota recalled 133,000 Prius vehicles.
To fix the problem, the company updated the ABS software to improve braking response time. The recall only affected the 2010 Prius because, Toyota says, first and second generation models have different braking systems.
But Fried isn't convinced. He thinks his car has the same problem as the ones that were recalled. To prove it, Fried drove around the block and had the reporter test the car.
"We'll get to the top of the hill here and then if you want to try it you can try it," he said.
From a complete stop, Fried said to accelerate to about 17 mph and then to slow down as we hit the rough patch. As the car slowed, there was a sensation that the brakes dropped out for a split second.
"You know what I'm talking about now," Fried said.
But Toyota mechanics were not able to feel it.
"I'd ride with a technician and they'd say, 'no I didn't really feel anything,'" he said.
Fried is not giving up. He plans to call Toyota to ask that they send a field technician out to test drive the car.
In response to similar complaints, federal regulators have opened an investigation into whether Toyota has covered all affected models in the recalls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and others have also questioned whether faulty electronics could be to blame for Toyota's accelerator issues.
Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister said the company is confident that electronics are not the problem.
"What our tests showed with our engineers and with outside sources is that the replication can be made, but not in real world situations, that in normal conditions those type of things would not occur," McAllister said. "Our electronic throttle control system is not allowing for unintended or unwarranted acceleration to occur."
An investigation by National Public Radio found about two dozen complaints to NHTSA alleging sudden acceleration and related problems for the 2005 Prius. A search of the NHTSA database turned up several dozen more complaints for vehicle speed control.
Toyota recently held a demonstration in an attempt to show that, in fact, electronics were not to blame for acceleration problems.
That answer clearly frustrates Mike Fried.
"I'm appalled, frankly, by how often the excuse is, 'well, we can't replicate it therefore there is nothing we can do about it," he said. Despite his concerns, Fried plans to keep driving his Prius. After all, he loves the car.
Toyota is banking on that kind of customer loyalty to help the company out of its PR nightmare. It may already be happening: dealers and popular car research Web sites are reporting strong Toyota sales this month.