A series of unfortunate car events

Last night, shortly after I left work, the floor mat in my Prius shifted in such a way as to partly cover the accelerator pedal.

I should note at this juncture that I'm fine; there were no injuries, property damage, crashes, or other serious problems.

That said, it was a little scary. There was a lot of news not long ago about floor mats trapping accelerator pedals in various Toyota models, including 2005 Priuses like mine. I had called Toyota at the time and was told that since I had a standard floor mat instead of an add-on “all-weather” floor mat, the recall didn't apply to me and I didn't need to worry about it. But this seemed pretty worrisome.

I pulled over to the side of the road without touching the accelerator pedal, turned on my hazard lights, put the gearshift in Park, and reached down and extracted the floor mat from the floor. Which took a bit of doing. (I forget whether I actually turned off the car or not; probably.)

Finally wrestled it out and tossed it in the back seat, looked around on the floor with a light to see if there was anything else loose I needed to worry about, and continued on to Kam's.

Half an hour later, we got back in my car to head off to a latke party.

And the following series of events transpired:

  1. A hollow boom sounded from somewhere in the parking garage. It didn't sound like it came from my car, but it wasn't clear where it came from.
  2. I held down the brake pedal and pressed the power button on my car's dashboard, as usual to start the car.
  3. The Maintenance Required light started blinking.
  4. Before I noticed the light, I started backing out of the parking space, but only got about a foot or so before I noticed the light and stopped.
  5. Kam and I were concerned, thinking the M.R. light was essentially the same as the Check Engine light. (See below for more on this.) I wondered if this might have something to do with my having removed the floor mat. I pressed the power button to turn the car off, then turned it back on again.
  6. The dashboard lit up, without the Maintenance Required light. But with half a dozen other lights, including Check Engine and various others.
  7. Kam said, “Let's take my car.” I agreed.
  8. I thought I should move the car fully back into its parking space. So I tried shifting into Drive. The gearshift moved, but the display showed I was still out of gear. I tried shifting into Reverse and Neutral. No dice. The gearshift was having no effect at all.
  9. I turned off the engine, sat for a moment, turned it back on. The M.R. light started blinking, but the other lights stayed off. I shut down the car and we went off to fetch Kam's car.

I was kinda spooked—the floor mat thing was bad enough, but then all this other stuff happening immediately afterward was making it feel like the car was just falling apart.

Later that night, I did successfully move the car fully back into its parking space, and Kam loaned me her car overnight so I could get home.

Today, I took my car to Toyota Palo Alto.

I was not best pleased with how they handled my last problem: the little rubber piece that covers the parking brake invariably breaks off about a week after they replace it, and then it takes me months to get around to going back in, and then they replace it, and then it comes off again. Last time I went in to get it replaced, they told me that the previous time had been a warranty replacement, but that warranty replacements are not themselves under warranty, so I was out of luck. It was a nonessential part, and I was really annoyed by their attitude (“Sir, I've been driving a Prius for years, and this has never happened to me”—implication being that it was somehow my fault), so I decided not to bother replacing it.

But they're by far the closest Toyota service place to Kam's and my places, and closeness seemed like a good idea for these new problems, given that I didn't know if the car would even be drivable.

But it started up fine. The M.R. light came on, but no other lights, and everything seemed copacetic. I drove it to the Toyota place; Kam followed in her car, to give me a ride afterward.

I got there without incident, and the Toyota guy that I spoke with seemed utterly unconcerned about any of it. Completely blasé.

I told him that the floor mat had shifted to cover the accelerator. He looked down at the foot-well area and said, casually, “Oh, that's because the clips that hold it in place aren't there.” No “Wow, that sounds scary and dangerous, I'm glad you're okay.” No “I'm sorry about that—that should never happen.” No emotion or interest at all, just a casual shrug, as if I had said “There's a tiny scratch in the paint on my door.”

Now that I read Toyota's page on the recall (linked above), I think I understand. The floor mats involved in the recall are indeed not the kind that I have. So I suspect he just saw this as an unrelated issue, and easily fixable, and so figured it wasn't a big deal.

But really, come on—regardless of how it happened or whether it's connected to a recall, a Toyota floor mat covered an accelerator pedal. You'd think that he would want to be a little apologetic just for PR reasons. Even if I was not in any danger, it was an unusual and scary situation, and I can easily imagine things having gone much much worse than they did.

It turned out that another reason the Toyota guy was unconcerned was that the Maintenance Required light simply means “it's been n thousand miles since your last maintenance, so take the car in for a checkup sometime soonish.” As soon as he said that, I mentally kicked myself, because I knew that but had forgotten. Every single time that light has come on, in the five years I've owned the car, I have thought it meant the same as Check Engine, and then have read or been told that it didn't, and then have forgotten again by the next time the light came on. So on the one hand, that part of my worry was my fault; on the other hand, I wish Toyota had used slightly different phrasing in labeling that light.

At any rate, it now seems likely that all the timing was simply coincidence:

  • The boom was most likely unrelated to my car.
  • The M.R. light meant I had traveled a certain number of miles since last maintenance; apparently pure coincidence that it lit up so soon after the floor mat incident.
  • The Check Engine and other lights (and the not-shifting-into-gear issue) seem likely to have been a fluke—perhaps I power-cycled too quickly or something, I dunno, but it happened only once, and doesn't seem to have been related to anything else.

So they'll do the 25,000-mile service, they'll replace the hooks for the floor mat and make sure it's firmly in place, they'll reshape the gas pedal to make sure it can't get stuck down (the other half of the floor mat entrapment recall issue), they'll fix something having to do with a water-pump recall (which can sometimes make the Check Engine light come on), and they'll do a general check of the whole car, and I'm sure all will be fine. (And Kam's loaning me her car for the next couple days.)

(Oh, and they'll replace the newish windshield wiper that's going bad. My experience so far has been that Toyota's official windshield wipers for the Prius tend to last about three heavy rains before they stop working right.)

So in terms of results, I don't have anything to complain about.

And for that matter, as my customer service experiences go, this one was somewhere in the middle range; certainly not awful.

But I'm still a little annoyed/disgruntled that the guy was so blasé about a problem that (a) seemed to me to be potentially seriously dangerous, and (b) seemed to me to be clearly a problem with the car and not, say, something I had done wrong.

Perhaps if I'm still feeling annoyed about this in a couple days, I'll call Toyota's Customer Experience Center, at 1-800-331-4331. But I imagine by then I'll have moved on.

One Response to “A series of unfortunate car events”

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    I’m so glad you’re all right (and your passenger is similarly fine) and your car will be fine, Jed. Blargh that the manufacturer’s instantiation in that dude was so blase! What the hell, dude.


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