LA Times Covers Miller Barondess Suit Against Toyota for Failing to Properly Repair Prius Vehicles Putting Lives in Danger
By Ralph Vartabedian, LA Times Reporter, Wednesday, February 7, 2018 – When the car was towed to Hogan’s nearby dealership, mechanics found that the inverter had overheated so badly that two holes were blown through the aluminum case and even steel bolts had signs of melting. Anderson got rid of the Prius and bought a new Corolla from Hogan. The failed Prius is one the dealer refuses to resell.
Hogan posted a warning about the problem on his dealership website in 2017 under the title of “public safety notification.” When Toyota became aware, it sent him a letter saying the posting contained misleading information and would confuse customers.
“When implemented,” the letter said, “the software change lessens the likelihood of a failure by improving the power management and internal operating temperatures for specific electronics in the inverter.”
Skip Miller, the attorney who represents Hogan, said the assertion that the software fix only “lessens the likelihood” of a failure is a violation of federal law. “The whole point of recall law is to fix the car before it fails,” he said.
The fail-safe mode, which Toyota documents also call limp-home mode, allows the cars to go 5 or 10 mph, Miller said. “It is an extreme safety hazard,” he said. “It is intended to limit damage to the inverter.”
According to Miller, Hogan’s problems with Toyota date to about 2015 when the dealer paid to develop a software program that would improve recall notifications to Toyota customers. It was aimed at increasing the often low completion rates after a recall is issued and notifying mechanics when a specific vehicle brought in for other service was under a recall.
Miller said Toyota rejected the idea and began quarreling with the Hogan family. The suit alleges that Toyota refused to supply all the vehicles that Hogan could sell, essentially diverting his business to other dealers. And it says Toyota decided to “punish Hogan” by blocking his plan to turn over management responsibility to his three sons.
In its statement, Toyota said, “Ultimately, we believe Mr. Hogan’s lawsuit is motivated primarily by a separate dispute he has with Toyota over management and succession issues involving his dealership, not the efficacy of this recall.”
Toyota’s handling of the Prius recall comes nearly nine years after the company faced problems with sudden acceleration in its Camry and Lexus models. A California Highway Patrol officer and three family members died in a runaway Lexus.
Federal regulators found that Toyota had failed to promptly notify customers about unintended acceleration problems caused by faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals. The company was fined $1.2 billion, which at the time was a record for an auto defect. Criminal allegations in the matter were dropped last October under a deferred prosecution agreement.
So far, inverter failures have not been linked to any injuries or crashes, though when a car loses power the owner might not be aware that it was caused by an inverter failure, Miller said.
In recent years, hundreds of consumer complaints about Prius inverter overheating have been filed on the NHTSA website and posted on various online forums. In one of many examples, an owner reported that the car stalled out on a freeway when the dashboard warning lights indicated a hybrid power failure.
The inverter is roughly the size of a box for hiking boots with a thick aluminum case that is packed with high power transistors, capacitors, microprocessors and a liquid cooling system. The inverter is able to handle more power than often runs through a household wiring system. Its power conversion occurs in a series of transistors that turn on and off thousands of times per second.
According to University of Michigan electrical engineering professor Heath Hofmann, a hybrid systems consultant, the auto industry is trying to find a substitute for the transistors, which are prone to high temperatures.
The changes made in the software update could be reducing the amount of power that flows through the inverter, which could affect the Prius’ fuel economy and emissions, said University of Maryland professor Michael Pecht, who founded the school’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering, which focuses on electronics reliability.
“They could be reducing the battery use,” Pecht said. “It would increase use of the gas engine. Absolutely, gas mileage goes down and emissions go up.”
Hofmann also said the vehicle’s fuel efficiency and emissions might be affected. But it is also possible that Toyota found a defect in the inverter software that caused the overheating. As an example, he said, the transistors could short-circuit if the software that controls the power switching was faulty.
A Toyota spokeswoman, asked whether the software would affect the vehicles’ fuel efficiency or emissions, said, “We don’t have any comment on that.”