Monday, June 26, 2017

Adventures in Automotive Technology, Prius Edition

FRESNO, Friday 6pm: 150 miles from home, on our way back from a week in the mountains, we're on our way to meet our friend Sylvia for dinner, when warning indicators suddenly appear on our 2006 Prius. We bought it 15 months ago with 57,000 miles on it; now the odometer reads 80,000.

The icons include a scary red triangle with a bright "!" in the middle, and something that looks like a skinny doughnut. On the "Multi-Information Display" we see the red outline of a car profile with another red "!" superimposed.

The car drives just fine, so we drive another few miles to dinner, where we enjoy catching up with Sylvia. I inspect the instrument panel further. I find nothing, but a web search tells me that it's not safe to drive unless we know what the codes are. The Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC) can't be read at any random auto repair shop; only the dealer knows how to get them and what to do with them.

Early Saturday morning, we get to a Toyota dealership, where a friendly service rep tells us that unfortunately, all the master technicians are at a Toyota sponsored event. Last year it was Disneyland; this year it's NASCAR. So probably nobody can actually read the codes, or knows what to do if they could. I thrust both arms in the air and cry: "Today must be my LUCKY DAY!" (I didn't say what kind of luck.) This got a smile out of "Ted" (name changed to protect the innocent).

I ask him, off the record, what he would do in my place: 150 miles from home, car full of camping stuff, gotta get to work Monday, all the master techs are out of town, etc. "I'm not gonna tell anyone, 'Ted at <dealership name> told me…'" I say.

He says he'd take a chance and head home. "I'm a risk taker," he says.

"So THAT'S why you work at a Toyota dealership!" I say. "Those guys that climb El Capitan without ropes—they're BORING. Life right here, now THAT'S livin' on the edge!"

That gets another chuckle out of Ted. And just in case I'm not a complete whack job, he adds: "But if you lose power" or any other hiccup, we should pull over and get towed, he says. Fine. I shake his hand and he gives me his card.

Well, we didn't quite make it to Los Banos. The car lost power and I pulled over near some almond trees by the side of the road. At least it wasn't too hot. The lovely Carol called AAA for a tow, and was on hold for a while; I took over with her phone and waited... well, a while longer. I don't actually know how long we were on hold. Eventually, though, a wonderful lady came on and took our information. She arranged a tow, and said the driver ought to be to us about 11:27am.

At 11:26 (I am not kidding) I saw a tow truck on the opposite side of the highway. It made a legal U-turn and the driver pulled in front of us. He took my AAA membership number and towed us to the Toyota dealer in Merced, about 2 hours from home. I guess that means we drove 50–60 miles before crapping out.

We paid the driver for the extra mileage (AAA covers a 5-mile tow, but we went 21 miles), then I chatted with Kevin the service manager. When I told him what lit up, he said, "that's the indicator you don't want to get." Exactly. "90% of the time when you get that," he said, "it's the hybrid battery. The other 10% it's something else."

Oh, and all the master techs watching NASCAR races? "I have a master tech in here every Saturday." Wow! It really is my lucky day! He was out at lunch but would be back soon.

How much does it cost to replace the battery? Something like $3,500. But the other issue would be time. "It takes six hours to replace the hybrid battery," he said. "and we close at five." He could get us into a rental car before that and we could head home with the laundry and the perishable stuff anyway.

The master tech returned from lunch, and after a while Kevin asked us if we ran out of gas. "No, we filled it up in Visalia" (or was it Three Rivers?) "and drove about 200 miles." I said we had about half a tank. A short while later, it looked like we had a bad fuel level sending unit.

More time passed. Kevin came over. "I have some more information. You weren't that lucky. He did a test drive and found something else was wrong." It turns out that the Prius has a lot of sophisticated electronics. Those electronics must be kept from overheating. There is a pump for the coolant, and it had failed. It would set us back several hundred dollars to replace that. The good news was: it would be done by five.

Kevin was good as his word. We had been there about five hours, and spent about $500. The tow truck was about $100 and about another hour. So we got off easy this time.

So the end of our vacation week could have been a little better; it also could have been a whole lot worse.