Toyota Prius Owners Tell of Braking Scares

TORRANCE, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- Drivers of the Toyota ( TM) 2010 Prius are telling TheStreet.com that they regularly were frightened by braking problems long before last week's recall.

"I was afraid I was going nuts after I purchased the car, so I started keeping a spreadsheet with the times that I experienced the issue," wrote Healy Jones, who noticed that his 2010 Prius didn't always slow down when he stepped on the brakes.

Toyota said on Feb. 8 that it will recall about 133,000 of the 2010 Prius models and 14,500 of the 2010 Lexus models to update software in the anti-lock braking system. It said the system engages and disengages rapidly when the control system senses and reacts to tire slippage. So far this year, Toyota has recalled nearly 9 million vehicles, most as a result of sticky accelerator pedals.

On Wednesday, CEO Akio Toyoda said he would not testify at congressional hearings probing Toyota's response to problems with its cars, a decision that could diminish the automaker's image if consumers take the view that he is dodging his responsibility to address their concerns.

Jones, who bought his car in October, is vice president of marketing for Pixily.com, a Cambridge, Mass., document scanning company. He soon found that potholes triggered problem. Unfortunately, "New England has a lot of potholes," he wrote.

In particular, one afternoon Jones was driving home from lunch with two Pixily.com board members. "I was slowing and hit a huge pothole," he wrote. "The car jumped and both the directors let out gasps. I tried to brush it off as 'Wow, that was a big pothole,' but inside I was thinking, 'Man, I hope these guys don't think I'm trying to kill them right before our board meeting."

Specifically, Jones' problem is that when he brakes normally, and then hits a pothole, the car stops slowing down. "The car goes faster than you think it should," he said. At that point, he must slam on the brakes to slow the car. He plans to take his vehicle into the dealer, who so far has not notified him of the recall, "although they did call me just before the recall was announced asking me if it was time for me to have an oil change."

Blue Bell, Pa., resident Julia Reusch noticed a similar problem with her 2010 Prius. "About three weeks ago, I told my husband to make sure he left extra room when braking because sometimes the car seems to slip like it's on ice when stopping, though there is no ice around," she wrote.

Reusch, a producer for Nancy Glass Productions in Philadelphia, filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She also made an appointment with a Toyota dealer, then canceled when she read that Toyota did not yet have a fix for the problem. Now, she says, she has an appointment.

One day last week, before Toyota announced the Prius recall, eight or nine Prius owners were lined up at a Toyota dealership in Alhambra, Calif., complaining about "the antilock brakes not working as expected when driven over bumps," said Adam Bray-Ali of Alhambra.

"The service writers were polite, but they were defensive," he said. At the time, "they didn't know how to fix it. They didn't have a fix from the national group."
Toyota
A technician operates a diagnosing equipment "TA scan" in a Prius, to fix the program of the antilock brake system at a dealership of Toyota.

Toyota spokesman John Hanson said the Prius recall was a response to customer complaints concerning "inconsistent brake feel" when the car traveled over rough surfaces, particularly potholes and bumps. In fact, he said, the ABS system on the 2010 Prius functioned properly, but it was "very aggressive." He said all Toyota dealers are now able to reprogram the software in less than 10 minutes, once the computer is hooked up to the vehicle.

"An ABS system is designed to make adjustments many times a second, engaging or disengaging the brakes," Hanson said. "The microprocessor compares what the driver is telling it to do at the pedal to what the tire is capable of achieving, and then it makes the decision as to whether it will allow that much braking input." In the cases where 2010 Prius drivers complained, he said, "they were all traveling at a moderate or slow rate, going over a bump or pothole, and giving a light touch on the brake when they hit the pothole. The computer notices that as being close to losing traction, and makes an adjustment," which caused the driver to believe the brakes were not functioning.

Despite the recent problems, Bray-Ali remains a Toyota loyalist. His 2008 Toyota Tundra has been recalled, he said, and he plans to take it in during the next four to six weeks. The service writers said parts will be available. "I believe them and trust it will be done later," he said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .