Toyota’s Prius faces US probe over brakes

DETROIT, Michigan: Toyota is facing a potential safety issue with its highest profile vehicle, the Prius, the latest in a plague of quality problems that forced it to recall four million vehicles in 2009.

A growing number of owners allege that the brakes on the third-generation, 2010 Toyota Prius can malfunction unexpectedly, with at least 20 complaints filed so far with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Japanese automaker said it has launched its own investigation.

Robert Becker, 39, is one of those filing among at least 20 who have already submitted their concerns to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.

He says he was heading to work on the west side of Manhattan, coming up to an intersection and squeezing the brakes of his 2010 Prius to slow down.

But when the car hit a pothole, Becker suddenly had the “sensation of losing control,” as the brakes released, forcing him to slam down on the pedal.

“It scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t sure I could stop in time,” he said, adding the problem has repeated itself a number of times since then.

Becker is not alone, as NHTSA’s defects office reveals.

One complaint on file quotes an owner: “Initially, I convinced myself I must have been letting up on the brake when I hit the bump, but when this same thing happened three days ago on slippery, icy roads, I knew with 100 per cent certainty I had not let up on the brake.”

The Prius brake problem has become a hot topic on numerous websites, but federal investigators are so far declining to comment, although the file is open to the public.

Toyota admits it is aware of what a spokesman called “the behavior people are reporting.”

“We’re investigating those complaints as quickly as possible,” spokesman Mike Michels added.

Exactly what is happening is unclear.

Like the vehicle’s gasoline-electric powertrain, the brakes are also a hybrid technology.

During light to moderate braking, the car is slowed by a regenerative system that turns the vehicle’s kinetic energy into electricity, which is then stored in a battery.

For more aggressive stops, the Prius also has a conventional hydraulic brake system.

Some speculation focuses on the regenerative system, and whether a sharp jolt to the vehicle could inadvertently trick vehicle sensors and controls into releasing the brakes.

But Michels cautioned Toyota will have to look at a variety of things. — AFP

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