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.