Bobette Riner bought a new Prius last year to shoot the bird at oil companies.
"I felt so smug for a while," she says.
She was lucky to score the car because there had been a three-month wait for nearly a year to get a Prius. The dealership couldn't even keep a model for the showroom.
The car had a "cute little body" that Riner loved, and she reveled in watching the energy-usage display on the car's center console, trying to drain every possible mile from a gallon of gasoline. When she hit 2,000 miles, she could count her trips to a gas station on one hand.
On a rainy night last fall, a couple of months after Riner bought her Prius, she was driving to a sales meeting in her hometown of Houston, Texas. She hated driving in the rain because a car wreck in college catapulted her through the windshield and doctors almost had to amputate her leg.
Traffic was congested but moving, and Riner kept the Prius pegged at 60 mph, constantly looking at the console to manage her fuel consumption.
Suddenly, she felt the car hydroplaning out of control, and when she glanced at the speedometer, she realized the car had shot up to 84 mph. Riner wasn't hydroplaning; quite simply, she says, her Prius had accelerated on its own.
She pushed on the brakes but says they were dead. Then, just as suddenly as the car had taken off, it shut down. The console lit up with warning lights, leaving Riner fighting a stiff steering wheel as she coasted across four lanes of traffic and down an exit ramp.
The car stopped near a PetSmart parking lot, and Riner sat in disbelief, wondering if her new car had actually gone crazy.
The Prius is one of the great success stories of the past decade, becoming the one car synonymous with hybrid and helping Toyota drill into a skeptical American auto market while the Big Three failed and failed again to produce efficient vehicles.
The car is the status symbol of the geeky, green, environmentally conscious elite. Meryl Streep once said, "If everybody that had two cars had a Prius instead of an SUV, we wouldn't be in the Middle East right now."
Now, another side of the Prius has orbited into view as owners share horror stories on blogs and messageboards. Prius drivers complain that faulty accelerators have caused them to crash their cars through forests, garage doors, and gas stations from Central Florida to Washington state.
Jaded Prius owners say there's no resolution with Toyota, and the company hasn't lost or settled a single lawsuit concerning "unintended acceleration."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just two Prius investigations in its database from 2004 and 2005, but those involved the car's cooling system. Toyota responded to the acceleration problem in 2007 by recalling "faulty floor mats" that the company said could cause the gas pedal to stick. Another explanation from Toyota is simple driver error.
"You get these customers that say, 'I stood on the brake with all my might and the car just kept on accelerating.' They're not stepping on the brake," says corporate Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong. "People are so under stress right now, people have so much on their minds. With pagers and cell phones and I.M., people are just so busy with kids and family and boyfriends and girlfriends. So you're driving along and the next thing you know, you're two miles down the road and you don't remember driving, because you're thinking about something else."
In 1993, the Clinton administration developed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, awarding federal funds to Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors and giving the companies access to federal research agencies. The goal was to develop a car that got more than three times the gas mileage of full-sized vehicles already on the road.
Toyota was left out of the New Generation program, but it responded in 1994 by officially starting Project G21, its program designed to develop an environmentally friendly car. Three years later, the first Prius was released in Japan.
Chrysler, Ford, and GM still hadn't shown any New Generation prototypes by the end of the decade, but an unveiling was scheduled for January 2000 at Detroit's North American International Auto Show.
Heralded in newspaper accounts as a possible breakthrough, some of the designs certainly were radical but as it turns out were actually just for dreamers. Each company rolled out a New Generation car, but after the show, the prototypes disappeared from public view.
The federal government had already fed more than $1 billion to the three automakers — at a time when the American manufacturers were still highly profitable — with few results. The New Generation program was a failure at best; Ralph Nader called it "corporate welfare at its worst."