Published January 14, 2015
Prius owners in Japan are rushing to dealers Wednesday, a day after Toyota's president announced a global recall. Instead of screwdrivers and wrenches, what the mechanic is using to tackle the fix is a small laptop-like device that rewrites programming for the brakes.
Some 400,000 Prius vehicles globally, about half of them in Japan where the gas-electric hybrid is manufactured, will get a repair for the glitch in the antilock brake system.
Prius owners in Japan are the first to get the fix — at Toyota dealers nationwide. A similar repair for 139,000 Prius cars sold in North America will follow as dealers notify owners next week. A fix is also in the works for 53,000 Prius cars in Europe.
At a repair shop in the back of a Tokyo dealership, a mechanic plugged a long black cord dangling from a handheld device — about the size of a book — into a socket at the bottom of the dashboard, beneath the steering wheel.
An assistant opened the hood, to make sure everything was all right, turned to the mechanic in the driver's seat, and asked, "Ready?" The mechanic began pushing buttons on the device and pressing on its black and white touch panel.
The car's faulty programming — which can cause a slight delay in braking — was replaced with correct programming. It was all over in less than 10 minutes, without a sound or a stir.
The Tokyo dealership chain called Toyopet is expecting eight more Prius cars to be brought in for reprogramming later in the day. Owners are being asked to wait about 40 minutes.
Makiko Noguchi, a 61-year-old producer for a video company, was sipping tea in the showroom, anxiously waiting for her Prius to get fixed.
"I never experienced any problems," she said. "If anything, I'm more worried about what they're doing to my car now."
Like many other Prius owners, she was mystified by Toyota's handling of the recall. All Toyota needed to do was come out with an explanation sooner, she said.
It wasn't until Tuesday that Toyota announced the global Prius recall. The company acknowledged last week it had quietly fixed the glitch in cars in production from last month — a disclosure that did little to assuage growing consumer doubts.
The recall for the Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid, comes on top of more than 8 million Toyota vehicles recalled in the last four months outside Japan for problems with floor mats that can entangle gas pedals and a defective gas pedal.
Toyota, which built its reputation on near-perfect quality, has been widely criticized as too slow and irresponsible in managing its recall crisis.
The scrutiny of Toyota's possible mishandling of the problems will move to Congress in coming weeks, with hearings in the House and the Senate to see if all the causes of Toyota's acceleration problems have been identified.
Toyota says the latest problem with the Prius produces a sensation that the brake power is weakening. That happens only on slippery or bumpy surfaces when antilock brakes kick in. If the driver steps heavily on the brake pedal, the car will stop.
The sensation is unique to hybrids. Hybrids have two braking systems because they have both a gas engine and an electric motor. One of the braking systems recharges the battery as the car runs — a feature that helps deliver superior mileage.
In the third-generation Prius, which went on sale in May, the car switches between systems for the antilock brakes. Because of the uneven pressure in braking during the switch at low speeds, the driver feels the brakes aren't working properly for a fraction of a second.
The switch in braking was not in older Prius models, and the new programming does away with it, according to Toyota.
The Prius is the best-selling car in Japan, the first hybrid to ever win that spot, and had boasted long waits in orders.
Toyota said some Japanese were canceling their Prius orders after the problem surfaced, but has not given a number.
Also recalled are three other hybrid models — the Sai hybrid, sold only in Japan, the luxury Lexus HS250h and the plug-in. Replacement programming is not yet ready for those models.
Toyopet dealership spokesman Hiroyuki Naito is hopeful the Prius will stay popular, despite the recalls, possibly managing to stay the top-seller in Japan, given the huge backlog of orders.
"We are responding as quickly as we can and seeking our customers' understanding," he said.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda told reporters Tuesday that he personally tested his own Prius to recreate the time lag some drivers have complained they feel with the braking.
"If we find defects, and we see we made mistakes, we correct that," he said.