Prius’ woes not limited to brakes

A new federal investigation into braking problems with Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius hybrid is just one in a series of possible glitches that may be linked to the vehicle’s complex electronics, including headlights that fail inexplicably, records and interviews show.

Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had opened a formal investigation into the 2010 model Prius after getting 124 complaints from drivers of a brief loss in braking power, which has been blamed in four crashes, two of which resulted in injuries.

In a related development, Ford Motor Co. said it would offer owners of its Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids a software upgrade because of complaints over the feel of its braking system.

The federal probe came as Toyota said its recall-related losses would cost it $2 billion. The company has blamed its sudden-acceleration problems on floor mats that entrap its gas pedals and gas pedals that stick. But independent safety experts say they believe bugs in electronic throttle systems may also play a role.

There were reports from Japan early Friday that a recall affecting 270,000 Priuses was imminent. Toyota, which has recalled more than 9 million vehicles to address problems of sudden acceleration, declined to immediately comment.

Toyota, which has also been asked to study the braking problem by the Japanese government, said in a statement that it was cooperating with investigators and that it had implemented a “production change” last month to resolve the issue, which it says is in the anti-lock brake system.

A Times review of safety records indicates that the Prius is prone to a number of other safety issues that motorists complain have not been resolved.

The most persistent problem involves headlights. Since 2001, Prius owners have lodged more than 1,300 complaints about exterior lights shutting off without warning, most frequently the headlights.

According to complaints, the high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, anoption on the Prius, shut off without warning, sometimes in dangerous situations, leading to four crashes and at least one injury.

That compares with about 500 complaints of brake issues in the Prius for that period. Records show nearly 200 complaints linked to speed-control problems, mostly for unintended acceleration.

Prius owners have also complained of vehicles that shut off completely or stalled without warning, often while in motion, and of at least six incidents in which the hybrid’s high-powered battery started a fire and destroyed the vehicle, among other problems.

Prius owners and experts suspect the complex electronics at the heart of the hybrid vehicle, a showcase for some of Toyota’s most advanced technology.

“It’s becoming alarming because it looks like there’s a pattern here,” said Melissa Harnett, an attorney who is co-counsel on two lawsuits against Toyota seeking class-action status on the headlight issue. “We believe this involves the entire electronic control system.”

The headlight complaint is particularly persistent in the 2006 to 2009 model years. Last April, NHTSA launched an investigation into the issue. Counting reports both to it and Toyota, the agency found 2,251 complaints from drivers, as well as nearly 28,000 warranty repairs of the HID lighting system on the Prius.

But after the automaker pledged in August to mount a “consumer service campaign,” NTHSA dropped the investigation, finding only one headlight at a time was affected and thus “a safety defect trend has not been identified.” Under state law, motorists with a burned out headlight can be cited for an equipment violation.

NHTSA records, however, show more than 100 complaints of both headlights cutting out at once.

Mary Johnston of Raleigh, N.C., said she was driving on a lonely country road last week when both headlights on her 2007 Prius cut off at once, leaving her in total darkness. Unable to see, she drove off the road, almost wrecking the car.

The 62-year-old retired schoolteacher was able to turn the lights back on by flipping the switch several times, but no sooner did she pull back on the road than they cut off again, she said.

“It was very scary for me,” said Johnston, who said she had had one of the headlights replaced at her own expense just two weeks earlier after it suddenly winked out. Now she refuses to drive the Prius at night. “It doesn’t feel safe,” she said.

The lawsuits allege that there is an “inherent defect” in the Prius computer.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons declined to comment on the suits, but disputed that the there was a problem with the vehicle’s computer. The issue is “isolated to the bulb,” he said, noting that many drivers have them switched on in daylight, causing them to burn out more quickly.

In late December, the automaker began sending letters to 216,000 Prius owners offering to reimburse them for some or all of the costs of repairs to the headlight system.

In court filings, Toyota indicated that the headlights were designed to “intermittently turn on and off signaling the need for repair or replacement.”

Other Prius drivers have complained of different issues. In 2005, NHTSA investigated a problem with stalling in 2004 and 2005 models, in which consumers complained that the engine shut down without warning.

The probe found that most of the complaints were linked to an issue “with the program logic in the electronic control module (ECM) system,” and Toyota indicated it would reprogram 75,000 of the vehicles to address the problem. The agency closed the investigation, concluding that the “remedy should address most of the incidents.”

NHTSA’s database includes 191 complaints of stalling in the 2004 and 2005 model year Prius. Of those, 44 took place after the investigation concluded and Toyota began its safety campaign. In addition, there are more than 100 complaints of stalling in other model years of the Prius.

Two years ago, James Ellsworth said he and his wife were driving their 2006 Prius to San Diego when suddenly everything, including the engine, cut out. “The whole dashboard went black and it got really, eerily quiet,” said Ellsworth, a Los Angeles video editor.

He managed to steer the car across five lanes of traffic, down an exit ramp and into a gas station, where he was able to restart the engine. He chalked it up as a “one-shot fluke.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent a letter to both Toyota and NHTSA on Wednesday aimed at getting a better understanding of whether electronic defects could be causing problems in the Prius. “I am extremely concerned,” he said. “You can have what appears to be a good design, but when it breaks you can’t fix it.”



Times staff writers Tiffany Hsu and Thomas Suh Lauder contributed to this report.