Prius Freeway Chase: An OJ Moment for Hybrids?

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Just watched a video of the new runaway Prius episode in Southern California from last night. The scene and its aftermath reminded me of the OJ Simpson Ford Bronco chase that was televised live after the former football star was accused in 1994 of murdering his wife and another man.

With the Runaway Prius, according to the news reports, the car accelerated by itself to 90 miles an hour and wouldn’t stop, until a California Highway Patrol (CHP) car gave the driver instructions from a loudspeaker and then got in front of the car, helping brake it to a stop.

“I was on the brakes pretty healthy, it wasn’t stopping or doing
anything, it just kept speeding up,” said the driver, James Sikes. The panicked driver called 911, and as a responding CHP pulled alongside him, he said, “I was standing on the brake pedal
looking at him.”

The power of such a cultural meme, happening on a greater LA freeway, starring CHPs as supporting cast, has all the memorable and dramatic emotional ingredients that can do even greater damage to Toyota, its Prius hybrid, and possibly even the alternative transportation movement.

Toyota has recalled eight and half million vehicles worldwide and six million in the US, because of unexpected acceleration, lack of braking and other safety issues. Other Toyota models are included, including non-hybrids.

In the Prius, though, we have perhaps the most known mass consumer market item that screams “green” to newbies as well as sustainability technology experts. Just a few months ago in picking the top 10 stories of the past decade in sustainability, I chose the rise of the Toyota Prius (from 2001 onward) as the green icon of the era, largely because Hollywood types such as Leonardo DiCaprio adopted the Prius as their leading eco-chic indicator.  

From the OJ chase, one lasting impression was that 24-cable news became a major media
force that day
, as CNN scored big audiences and even bigger mindshare
in its constant coverage of OJ’s cruising white Bronco, which remained as a small
live inset while the network covered other news. I also recall that was the first instance I had ever heard of the word “cell phone”–they were actually called “cellular” or mobile phones before that–which OJ was talking on with the media, his mother and the police.

What will we collectively remember from the Runaway Prius event? That those newfangled green technologies are inferior to good old, safe 100% internal combustion engines? That Japanese cars are good on gas mileage, but unreliable, or worse, may have potentially fatal defects?

Only time, the whims of the general public and the marketing savvy of Toyota and its auto industry competitors already having or introducing new (Honda, GM, Nissan, Ford) hybrid models will tell. (Update: As of Tuesday night, Toyota placed a video ad claiming that it was “Committed to the Right Fix” directly before the NBC news video of the Runaway Toyota, which demonstrates a well-targeted and timely response)

OJ was eventually acquitted in a trial, but his Bronco chase firmed up
the beliefs of many that he was guilty of murder, as charged. The federal government announced late
Tuesday
that they will be investigating Monday night’s Runaway Prius incident. 

For those who want to see more fuel-efficient and innovative transportation in this country, they have to hope that others will not categorically see things as James Sikes put it, “I will never drive that car again, period.”

***UPDATE March 15, 2010

Toyota Disputes Sikes

Maybe more to the story?

***UPDATE March 17, 2010

CHP Supports Sikes

There are three sides to every story!

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
of
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon
Institute
.

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5 thoughts on “Prius Freeway Chase: An OJ Moment for Hybrids?

  1. have you heard of NEUTRAL ? if not then you really shouldn’t be driving ANY car…

  2. I wanted to say thanks very much for this ensightful article. I’ve already bookmarked your site, and when I get more free time I am going to have to do some further browsing here. Well back to day dreaming of Austria – or back to the work books – I wonder which one is going to win out.
    Have a nice day!

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