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Like Riner, most of the drivers who've had "unintended acceleration" problems with their Prius insist they were paying attention when their cars malfunctioned. Drivers like Elizabeth James of Eagle, whose Prius ended up in a river.
Still, her husband says, "We're not the kind of people to go through a lawsuit, and it's not in our nature. Our concern was that no one else got hurt, that Toyota own up to its problem."
From 2000 to 2008, about 1.3 million hybrids sold in this country, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Energy, and Priuses accounted for more than half those sales. Every year except 2006, Priuses sold more than all other hybrid models combined.
"There are some people who want to drive a unique 'top hat' that looks different," says Praveen Cherian, who worked in Detroit as Ford's lead engineer on its new hybrid, the Fusion. "But we know there are people out there who don't want to be driving a car, screaming, 'Look at me, I'm an environmentally conscious guy.'"
Ford certainly hasn't found those people, and like other American carmakers, the company has played catch-up to the Prius in recent years but gained little ground. In 2008, the closest competitor to the Prius was Toyota's Camry hybrid, followed by the Honda Civic. That year, Toyota moved about 159,000 Priuses; Honda sold about 31,000 of the Civic hybrids, and Chevy barely sold 2,000 of its Malibu hybrid.
But if things had gone as planned, the American carmakers could be dominating the hybrid market.
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. But while each company rolled out a New Generation car, 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."
The project was killed by the Bush administration in 2002.
Meanwhile, Toyota was priming the U.S. market for the Prius, led by David Hermance, now known as the Father of the American Prius.
Hermance, who lived in Gardena, California, worked as the top hybrid engineer at Toyota when the car was released in the United States in 2000, and while he didn't have a hand in designing the first-generation Prius — it was strictly Japanese engineering — he furiously promoted and explained the car's technology to the media and legislators.
In an interview with the website www.hybridcars.com in 2004, Hermance said his involvement with the Prius was an environmental mission for him, even if it wasn't for "the mainstream marketing folks."
"I'm convinced that global warming is real, and that if we're not principally responsible, we're at least contributing to that," he told the interviewer. "I'd like to leave the planet a little better than I found it."
The second-generation Prius, the model in production today, was directly engineered by Hermance, and he focused on making the car fun and peppy; his designs and marketing are credited for breaking the car mainstream. The new Prius was released in 2004, winning Motor Trend Car of the Year and a heap of other accolades. A year later, Toyota sold 100,000 Priuses for the first time, and sales more than doubled each of the first two years the second generation was built.
Hermance died in the fall of 2006 after crashing his airplane into the Pacific Ocean.
"He was just a brilliant engineer and was really for the hybrid," Toyota spokesman Kwong says. "He educated a lot of people."
Barbara Sherman, a 69-year-old retiree from North Carolina, bought a Prius just after Christmas in 2007 for her and her husband to drive around their retirement community of Winter Haven, Florida. "They were a little more than I had anticipated them being, but we had pretty much made up our minds that we were going to buy one," Sherman says. "I loved the car. It drove great and had a lot of pickup."
An odd thing happened, however, on a trip back to the family's home in North Carolina. Sherman and her husband had driven the Prius down a steep hill, on a road cut through some woods, to spend an afternoon parked along a riverbank. The Prius slipped on some gravel on the drive back, and its wheels just stopped.
"I thought we were going to have to get someone to tow us out, and that would've been a long walk to town, but we were able to back down the hill and get a bigger running start. We managed to get it out and just decided to never take it down there again," Sherman says. "That was the first problem."