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Another day, another Prius recall report

Today brings another unsourced report from another Japanese media outlet that Toyota is preparing a recall of its high-profile hybrid, the 2010 Prius, to take care of complaints from drivers that the vehicle's brakes are squishy.

Today's report comes from Japan's Kyodo news agency. It reports, though does not identify its source, that the Japanese auto giant will recall 270,000 Priuses on Tuesday. The company has not confirmed the report.

Last week's report came from Japanese news outlet Nikkei, and its number was 160,000 Priuses. The company last week denied that report.

Over the weekend, however, Toyota said it is working on a plan to fix the Prius brakes and would announce something this week.

The problem in a nutshell: The Prius, like other hybrids, uses an innovative braking system known as "regenerative braking" that has an electronic and more conventional hydraulic braking system. When the Prius switches from one system to another, sometimes over bumpy roads, there is a momentary feeling of squishiness in the brakes. Toyota says the brakes are fine and if you keep applying them, the vehicle will brake. Of course, that's not what a number of the more than 100 complaints by 2010 Prius owners to NHTSA have said, so Toyota has a problem on its hands.

So here's what's probably going on: Automakers understandably hate to issue recalls. Recalls are the last-ditch resort because (a) they are so expensive, (b) they kill your public image, (c) they may not have diagnosed the problem accurately and the recall won't work, and (d) a lot of people will not bring their recalled vehicles in to be fixed because they are busy or they don't think the problem is that bad.

Toyota has likely been trying to figure out if this brake squishiness is a real mechanical problem that is the result of a design flaw or if it's a perception problem that can be fixed with a software change that will make the brakes feel firmer.

Then, the automaker has been trying to figure out whether it's a systemic problem on all the company's assembly lines -- maybe, because it's been installing a software fix on recently produced Prius brakes (an issue, by the way, that Ford hybrids have, as well) -- or whether it's isolated to a few assembly plants.

Then, Toyota is trying to figure out if this is a safety issue or a perception issue. Make no mistake -- automakers run a cost calculus on recalls, weighing the potential hazard of a situation (and that includes the potential for class-action lawsuits, which Toyota is already facing) against the cost of the recall.

Here's a good academic study on the production cost vs. liability cost of the Ford Pinto's exploding gas tank.

For Johnson & Johnson, which faced eight deaths in Chicago in the early '80s because a never-apprehended villain poisoned the company's Tylenol with cyanide, the choice was simple: Our product is killing people. We need to take all Tylenol off the shelves everywhere, immediately.

Toyota's choice is not so simple. No deaths have been attributed to the squishy Prius brakes and only four crashes are alleged to have happened because of them. But the P.R. hit Toyota is taking is massive.

If the automaker chooses to execute a recall, it wants to run the cheapest recall possible that will fix the problem, i.e, a software fix versus ripping out the entire brake assembly.

Toyota has a lot of parts in motion right now, as it tries to figure out what to do about its 2010 Prius, which has been the automaker's halo vehicle -- the car that is meant to embody all that is best about Toyota. That's why you're seeing this drip-drip-drip unsourced reports on the future of the Prius. It's not an easy choice Toyota faces.

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By Frank Ahrens  |  February 8, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Corporations  | Tags: Ford Pinto, Prius, Toyota, Toyota recall update, toyota recall model and years  
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Toyota has several SPECIAL friends?

Posted by: TSUmbra | February 8, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Of the 2000 plus incidents, many did not involve the models Toyota is recalling and has suspended sales/manufacturing for. I think there will need to be a second wave of recalls and BAD publicity at some point to handle those models. Like Bill Clinton, they should have just came clean to begin with and act like they care about the consumers who have made them so successful.

Posted by: tojo45 | February 8, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

My lawsuit-happy portion of Texas is gearing up to make some quick money. You just can't know if there are a few problems or many problems once the lawyers get involved.....or no problems, people just don't like the "feel" of their brakes.

Posted by: rusty3 | February 8, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

If you go to Toyota’s website you will see that they are working hard to get information out to the public. They have several videos including one from their President Jim Lentz.

Posted by: davidlauer50 | February 8, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I love my 2010 Honda Insight. It instills confidence in even the worst road conditions. The ABS and VSA/Traction Control are the best I have ever had. Some of the auto reviewers like Consumer Reports should be eating their fill of crow about now.

Posted by: jimjohnd | February 8, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad I bought my Prius in 2003 - the last year of the original design - before Toyota (and the others) started putting more and more unnecessary computer gizmos in cars. I've had no problems with brakes, or acceleration, or anything important to safety. But the few problems I have experienced have been computer glitches - "false positive" sensor readings when there was really nothing amiss. (And my 1993 Corolla manual, with no computer parts that I know of, has been an even more reliable workhorse.) Please, automakers: PLEASE go back to mechanical parts instead of computers wherever possible!

Posted by: nan_lynn | February 8, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I have a 2005 Prius. It is the best car I have ever owned. That is the last year they made them without Chinese parts, though. Everyone is on Toyota's case, today, but there are A LOT of pending cases of "American" cars where the steering suddenly stops working... the driver literally has no control. Chinese made steering assembly! So, in addition to handing them our money, jobs, factories, we are giving China control over our lives, too. Bring back tariff walls and raise them high enough to keep Chinese and Indian junk out of our economy, out of our medicine cabinets and toy boxes, off our cars, and we will be a lot safer.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | February 8, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

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