Hybrid-electric Toyota Prius, now available in Valley, thinks for itself but seldom stops for a drink
She didn't have to mention the technology. She could have said that the car had just shut its engine off, assuring him that as soon as the coast was clear it would start itself again.
A car that turns itself on and off without human intervention -- could it be Michael Knight's black Pontiac Trans Am K.I.T.T (Knight's Industrious Two Thousand) from NBC's hit '80s television show Knight Rider?
No, it's Toyota's Prius. The Prius, like K.I.T.T, thinks on its own, and in doing so may also rescue its driver. Although Prius may not seek out the injustices that K.I.T.T fought, it champions its own environmental causes.
As it's driven the Prius alternates its power source -- imperceptible to the driver (with the exception of a monitoring display screen) -- between the gas engine and the permanent magnet electric motor. When the car stops for more than a few seconds, the gas engine quits running.
It doesn't idle. Ever. It turns itself off. This technology reduces emissions while maximizing gas mileage.
Only Toyota and Honda sell hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV's) in the United States, although many car manufacturers including Ford and Dodge plan to introduce their own hybrid-electric or fuel cell vehicles in the next five years. Until September 2001, most HEV's were sold via the Net, not at dealerships. Now, HEV's sell online through a Toyota Certified Prius dealers or select Honda merchants.
Mae and Merv Coover inquired about HEV's at Cache Valley's John Watson Motors -- which happens to sell both the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius -- more than three months before they received their call in November 2000.
Outside dusk had descended, making it too dark to drive for Merv's liking, so Mae took the wheel of their 1971 LTD Ford. They made their way to see Wess Huff, sales and leasing associate for the car dealership in Logan.
Torches like rooted beanpoles brightly displayed the cars on the Watson lot. On this particular evening, the lights revealed Toyota's latest environmental innovation, appropriately colored electric green mica. Mae test-drove the new super ultra low emission vehicle (SULEV) first around Logan. Impressed with not only the technology, but also the practicality of the car, Mae and Merv Coover went home to mull over the purchase.
Mae explained, "We were cautious, we wanted to know [Prius] had established a good record."
Merv added, "The dealership has two trained mechanics and purchased all of the equipment to service these vehicles. Plus a there's the factory guarantee." The Coovers felt assured that the dealership had made a commitment to these cars. So, said Mae, "It was worth it to us to take the leap."
The next day, when they returned to the lot after daybreak, the Coovers had already made their decision, but Merv too wanted to take his turn at piloting the two-engine compact. The car did not disappoint and thanks to the height of the seats, this 82-year-old climbed effortlessly in and out of the auto. Satisfied, Mae and Merv bought the second Toyota Prius sold in Cache Valley by John Watson Motors, which also happened to be the second Prius bought by a man Merv's age. That coincidence delighted Merv, although most would not consider the Prius the new Cadillac for retirees.
Time has traveled quickly in the last 11 months, and so have the Coovers. The couple broke their Prius in, surpassing their first 600 miles, on a trip to Missoula, Mont. On a later adventure, Yellowstone National Park unfolded its beauty, but not Merv's wallet. The Coovers completed the trip, estimated at 650 miles, only once fueling their 11.9-gallon tank.
While in Yellowstone, the Coovers parked near a vanload of students from the Teton Science School. The pupils gawked and pointed, hurrying to get a better view of the Prius. They rushed the auto and fired questions at Mae and Merv. The Coovers enjoyed the interrogation; in fact they want more people to acquaint themselves with Prius.
Mae replied, "We could spout propaganda -- we'd just like to see more of them on the road."
Since last November, the Coovers' car has seen plenty of road, just over 7,000 miles of it, on roughly 11 tanks of gas. Their Prius has averaged 55 miles per gallon or about 654 miles per tank of gas. The Coovers' 1971 LTD Ford -- although introduced during the gas shortages of the early-1970s -- cannot hold a candle to the average mpg achieved by their Prius.
Credit the fuel-efficiency on the hybrid-electric technology, and for its lack of environmental pollutants. For the Coovers, the environmental benefits justified the Prius' $21,000 price tag. The Coovers deem the hybrid as
having a very high value. According to Merv, it's a "fuel-efficient car with lack of pollution to the environment." Mae, an Audubon Society volunteer, enjoys sitting at a stoplight knowing that her car is not spewing harmful emissions into the air.
Merv showed off Prius' technology, like a blue-ribbon winner at a science fair, to a visitor on the final, Friday afternoon of summer. He picked up his passenger in front of his 14-year-old, two-story, rich cinnamon-shaded, wood-paneled home.
His passenger climbs onto the muted silver seat, and notices the digital display panel at the very front of the granite-colored dashboard, close to and almost nested between the windshield wipers. This display, about the size of an egg carton, contains the odometer, fuel gauge, and the car's presently operating gear-- whether it's "P" for park or "D" for drive. It lacks an rpm indicator, but offers a new gear unique to Prius, called the "B" or the "brake" drive.
Merv points out another display, smack-dab in the center of the dash; this one sits where one would expect to find the stereo in most cars. About 5 inches wide and 5 inches tall, it looks much like a television monitor. The AM/FM radio controls indicate "off" and the outside temperature reads 82 degrees. This information appears simultaneously on the screen with, more importantly, the picture of a car tire, an engine, an electric motor and a battery icon.
The engine icon is in the top center of the screen. Directly below it is the electric motor icon. To the right of the electric motor is the battery and the tire is to the motor's left. The four icons form a pyramid with three acting as a base. Lines, like arrows, connect the bottom icons to each other and to the tire. Another arrow joins the engine to the tire, while still another unites the engine and the electric motor. These lines form an incomplete rectangle or a car's axles; together they sort of resemble the outline of a car.
Merv pulls what looks like an emergency brake lever, to the right of the ignition, to engage the engine. Green pulses on the monitor between the tire and the battery icon as he accelerates leisurely down the 300-yard gravel driveway. Stopping where the gravel meets the pavement, under the shade of a mammoth blue spruce, Merv merges onto Canyon Road and heads left, toward the higher residential ground running alongside mountainous forest service land.
For someone who once had trouble conversing over the hum of an internal combustion engine, Merv has no trouble hearing or chatting over the quiet of his hybrid engine. Again he points to the arrows that demonstrate the shifts in power. Red now runs between the engine icon and the tire. Merv explains that the lines change colors as the car's power source shifts from its battery-powered motor to its gas-driven engine. Nearing the foot of a hill, steeper than a flight of stairs, Merv calls attention to the car's performance. Notice the ease at which the car climbs the hill, he says. He wants to demonstrate that his HEV can handle the ascent.
He stops the car at the top of the hill and points to the video monitor. By his touch he changes the screen's image. Now, instead of the picture of the car's components and shifting power sources, charts appear. Merv explains the significance of each chart. Each fluctuates, like the graphic equalizer on a stereo -- like Ferris Bueller's stereo as it snored, feigning sleep.
One graph shows the current mpg. Merv has learned to maximize his mpg by driving with what he calls a "sensitive toe." He asserts that on a good day, when the traffic is minimal and the lights are kind, he can make it from his driveway down the hill into town getting 100 mpg.
Another graph exhibits the current energy/fuel consumption status of the electric motor's sealed nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery. This battery is the same type that powers many portable devices -- laptop computers, cell phones and camcorders -- but unlike such devices it never needs to be plugged in. The car regenerates its own battery energy; in large part, through what Toyota terms in its Prius pamphlet, "power-assisted ventilated front disc/rear drum with standard Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) and regenerative braking."
While Merv explains the video screen, the car shut off -- it seals its lips and inaudibly sits still. Merv hasn't put the car in park. He hasn't really shut it off. He has only stopped at an intersection. This "seamless" transition as Mae warmly calls it, reduces the car's emission output and fuel consumption. As soon as Merv finishes his lesson, he lifts his foot from the brake, and the car snaps to life.
Merv begins driving again, this time in the "B" gear. The "B" does not refer to the emergency brake, rather it's a type of low gear that Merv declares "isn't for regular driving." Use it as a control for going down steeper grade hills, he says. It restrains the car, producing more regenerative energy for the battery than the other gears. On the descent, Merv advises his passenger to watch the video monitor and its regenerative braking indicator graph. Sure enough, the car's battery regains its juice while driving down the hill.
That afternoon the Prius arrives at home energized, unlike the time when Mae and Merv returned from a weeklong trip out of state to find it lifeless. They had it jump-started. They then learned from Toyota that an auxiliary battery, in the trunk, powers the security system. When left unattended for seven days the auxiliary battery will drain the Ni-MH battery.
Disconnecting the trunk's auxiliary battery, although difficult to reach, may remedy this problem, but it will also disable the car's security system.
Merv, a retired electrical engineer for General Electric, says that with his background he could rig a switch that would make it easy to turn the auxiliary battery on and off, but he fears that tampering with the car's technology would void the warranty. Mae offers a more aesthetic criticism of their Pruis. This dark green color, she says, "it's too hard to keep clean." Pointing to the tracks of cat paws detailing the hood, she said, "I would've chosen a lighter color." Keeping the car clean may burden the Coovers, but it does not stop them from promoting Prius. Huff, the salesperson who sold the Coovers their car, appreciates the Coovers' assistance in marketing HEV's. Only a few HEV owners reside in Cache County, but Huff believes that hybrids are the "future of the car industry today."
He's confident in HEV technology and says, "Realistically within three to four years I'll own a hybrid. I'm concerned about the environment."
He says that Merv has taken at least a half-dozen interested consumers for a drive.
And a grateful Huff offers the Coovers a free car wash.