Published in the Sun March 9, 2013
It wouldn’t be fair to write about the advantages of alternative energy and never mention the disadvantages. Last week my 2006 Prius was heading to the airport when the “Red Triangle of Death” popped up on the dashboard. Stopping and restarting the car didn’t make it go away. The manual warned that the “Red Triangle of Death” required immediate professional help. The airport trip was aborted and we headed to Classic Toyota in Round Rock, where the service department confirmed our worst fears. The hybrid battery pack, the nickel-metal-hydride miracle that lets a Prius get 50 miles per gallon, had gone on the fritz and needed to be replaced.
Replacing the battery pack is no small matter. Scott Backus, my service representative, was sympathetic. “You’re not going to like this,” he said. “How bad is it?” “With labor, about $4000.”
Holy moly! My first thought was that this car barely had 100,000 miles on it. My second thought was, “There goes all the money I saved on gasoline.”
Later at home when some of the despair had worn off I got out the calculator and did some figures. If you assume the Prius gets 48 miles per gallon and gas averaged $3 per gallon since 2006, I spent $6249 on gasoline over the lifetime of the car. If I had been driving a Honda Civic that got 30 mpg, the gasoline would have cost $10,000, a difference of $3751. So yes, a new battery pack would eat up all my gas savings. Of course my carbon dioxide emissions are still less than they would have been in the Honda, but nobody pays me for that.
On the other hand, over the course of 100,000 miles a Ford F-150 pickup truck would use about $20,000 worth of gasoline, so it’s all relative.
I got interested in finding some data on how long these battery packs usually last. Paul Alberson, the Master Diagnostic Technician at Classic, told me stories about taxis in Montreal and San Francisco that have logged more than 300,000 miles on their original batteries. The Toyota warranty covers the battery for 8 years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Paul himself has owned several Priuses and thinks they are generally a pretty low maintenance vehicle. He feels like a Prius that is driven hard, like a taxi, gets more life out of the battery than one that is driven less. In other words, the passage of time is more detrimental to the battery than the actual mileage driven.
I still wanted some hard data on the battery lifetime, so I called the Toyota customer service hotline to ask the statistics on the 4 million Priuses that have been sold worldwide. They told me “that is proprietary information,” which is not a very good sales pitch.
Anyway, I forked over $3903 for a new hybrid battery pack and Classic gave me a complementary carwash. The old battery is on its way to California for recycling. Driving away from the dealer I was musing about how nice it would have been to get the new battery under warranty. I glanced at the odometer to see how narrowly I missed the 100,000 limit. Oh my gosh, the odometer is at 99,369! Because the battery had been out, the odometer wasn’t working when we took the car in, and they had written down my guess that the car had 110,000 miles. A quick U-turn on IH-35 rushed me back to Classic, where Mr. Backus took a picture of my odometer and confirmed that I was indeed still under warranty. Oh happy day, all my money was refunded, my gasoline savings are intact, and the Prius has a brand new battery pack. Thank you so much, Toyota! Maybe this one will last 200,000 miles.