Ghost in the Prius

I've owned my 2004 Silver Prius for about 18 months now, and in that time the only ‘problem' I've had is the hilariously named Red Triangle of Death often fondly referred to as the Red Triangle of Doom as well (I shall now refer to it as the RToD).

In the case of the RToD, the problem itself seemed to go away after leaving the car off for a little while, much like this poster describes. I found the whole incident rather humorous and frightening in a way, as the dealer didn't apparently realize that the Prius Drivers Manual states that in the case of this specific error the owner should call the dealership.

Before I describe the latest incident (quite minor in comparison to the RToD), looking back over the RToD incident would be helpful.

I was on my commute home from work (about 26 miles), and have to go through a fairly shitty interchange where 2 lanes of traffic merges to one, then merges with an on-ramp to one, THEN merges onto a very busy freeway. I'm referring in this case to the interchange in the North Bay Area where West 580 meets 101 North.

While sitting in the stop and go merge, I noticed that the engine turned off. Not unusual in the Prius as the engine goes to sleep on occasion during stop-and-go. However, after awhile it didn't turn back on… then the RToD went into full effect. A few pretty glowing lights on the dash, the LCD got a nifty little icon as well.

Seeing the RToD definitely gets your attention. It's not something that can be easily ignored, so I pulled off the road and yanked out the Prius Drivers Manual to see what the icons lighting up actually meant. I was already wondering at this point, why the hell do I need to pull out a manual when its an LCD, why not just print the explanation on the damn thing? The screen says all sorts of other useful text, it seemed quite lame they couldn't just print a full explanation and what to do next right there.

The drivers manual said that in this particular case, I should pull off the road as soon as its convenient (vs. the error about the braking system which said to pull over immediately). Ok, no problem, I was already pulled over. It then said to contact the dealership immediately. It was 7pm, but I figured, what the hell, it said to contact them so I pulled out my cell phone and called them up. My call went like this:

Me: “Hi, I'm calling to report a problem with my Prius”

Dealer: “Sorry, our Service Center is already closed”

Me: “Well, the manual said when these lights go on, I'm supposed to call the dealship. Any clue what I should do?”

Dealer: “The manual said you should call us?”

Me: “Right”

Dealer: “Really… huh. Toyota never told us that.”

At this point I was a little concerned since the dealership apparently didn't realize that the drivers manual told people to call them in the event of a half dozen different errors. It didn't say call the next day, it said call immediately and seemed quite firm about it.

While chatting with the dealer, I was still fiddling with things in the car myself, and I tried turning it on again at which point most of the lights went away, and only the engine light was still lit. Since this light merely indicated “see dealership soon”, I figured it was good enough to drive home and scheduled an appt for the next day with the dealer.

The next day, none of the lights were on. I still took it into the dealership where they did a debug dump of the computer, and installed an ECM software update which they said would prevent it from occurring in the future.

The Problem

The real issue that this incident left me pondering, is what the hell do you do if you're a long ways from a dealership? As only the dealership is somewhat prepared (most of their techs admit they have no clue how to fix it, they just follow manuals) this means you'll have to plan trips careful to make sure you're never too far from a dealership should something go wrong.

Someone on a PriusChat forum mentioned that the RToD happened to him on his property out in the back country of Canada. It took over 3 hours for the tow-truck to get to him, and hours more to tow the Prius to the nearest dealership (As his car never got better after leaving it off and turning it on again). At least he was lucky enough to have cell phone reception or some other way to contact a tow truck.

The Prius was originally unique in just how many systems are entirely computerized, however many modern cars are now catching up in electronic complexity so this is starting to become as likely to happen to any new car owner. More complexity of computers systems increases the likelihood of a possible bug cropping up and the testing process will never be able to eliminate them all. This means the people driving the vehicles are in a way, beta-testers.

I don't think thats too horrible, as the most tested parts are the most essential ones. If the failures resulted in cars flying off the roads, we all would've heard about it by now (Right?).

I'm hoping that more car manufacturers in addition to Ford license and utilize Toyota's hybrid technology because if there was some sort of standard for these parts you're likely to see more independent repair-shops drop the big investment for the equipment to repair them. That in itself would make me a lot more comfortable driving long treks where dealerships are scarce.

As I mentioned earlier though, the repair techs at the dealerships don't actually know how to fix any of these problems. They follow service manuals that indicate they should plug Gizmo-A into Plug-A on the car, hit Button-X to dump the data, then send the data back to Toyota for their computer/car engineers to analyze (More or less). Then they usually will either install a software update, or reset the software on the vehicle and hope the problem goes away. Isn't that reassuring?

Todays Incident

Well, it was pretty minor now that I've fully dredged up the memory of my RToD experience. Today my car decided that I've been listening to the stereo so much, so it started being a pain. It was sort of like having a child in the car messing with me.

First the audio cut in and out, then it turned off completely. The LCD then decided it no longer needed to inform me of the outside air temperature (is it hot? cold?), and my steering wheel audio controls didn't appear to be having any effect. So I hit the stereo power on/off and its back…. sort of. Then it cuts out, and I fiddle with it some more till its back on. It continues to do this throughout my drive in, occasionally coming back up to full functionality, then dropping the audio again.

I've already called and scheduled an appt at the dealership for tomorrow, so we'll find out what the heck it is this time after that. For all I know, it might be my friend again on the drive home and leave me alone. In the meantime, I think I'll browse the Prius forums and see if there's some ritual that will align me with my car's spirit so I can hopefully make peace with it.

Ben Bangert
Ben Bangert
Software Contriver

Code. Homebrew. Hike. Rollerblade.