The Toyota Prius: An Electrical Engineering Marvel

The success of the Toyota Prius is a tribute to the career of Electrical Engineers. I was recently made aware of the achievements of the Prius through a wiki I wrote as well as from the feedback on my recent Planet Analog blog on regenerative braking. I learned some very interesting details about this car and how it puts a feather in the cap of Planet Analog readers and contributors. In this blog I share my findings with you.

A blog such as this is a short bit of information. Therefore, references to electric cars in general are eliminated with the exception of the GM Impact. I have a special place in my heart for this car as it employed two of my Virginia Tech classmates; Steve Schultz on the battery charger and Eddie Yeow on the drive system. I also have a lot of disdain in terms of the arrogance and incapability of Detroit in terms of another market failure by a “visionaries”. The same arrogance would appear again at Motorola in the form of Iridium and refusal to admit the digital cell phone was a threat. Unlike GM, these “visions” killed Motorola. GM was instead bailed out by taxpayers. This after their campaign of “what’s good for us is good for America” caused the demise of the American transportation system by ripping up and burning most of the country’s trollies in the 1940’s. The result of which was GM being third to the US and Russia in net worth in the 1960’s only to falter in the 1980’s and again in 2008. Nice job guys.

A drive down the road today is a portrayal of your failure as the majority of cars are imports. I did have one bright spot with my 66 El Camino [ by Scott Deuty] which introduced a view of the rear bumper to many a Mustang. That car was a legacy I gave to my son who is still spanking ponies. Scyooze me while dad shed’s a tear. Chip off the old blockhead. Getting back to the Impact, the end came as an act of homicide as the ones that remained were crushed. So much for the attitude of “build it and they will come”.

Where Detroit faltered, Toyota got it right from the start. The name Prius is a testament to that as it means “to come before”. The success is attributed to Toyota letting engineers do their jobs by investigating the best combination of power delivery. The result was a “split power” hybrid that used both the battery and the gas engine to power the vehicle. This result was not achieved on the first try. It took several investigations to find the right combination. Again, let the engineer do their job instead of dictating thoughtless concepts that end in failure. It works. 3 million Prius owners are proof. Toyota literally created a market. Detroit had a few wins with the 57 Chevy and Mustang however fins, glitter, and chrome didn’t benefit the customer who was paying for the big oil behind the effort.

The Prius was introduced in a very visionary way. It debuted in 1997 meaning we are almost in the 20th model year. Whereas there was speculation about electrocution and profitability, none of it came to be. The success was due to Japan foreseeing the need for efficient transportation with the rise of drivers in India and China. The Prius wasn’t introduced in the US until 2000 when Japan again taught Detroit a lesson as it had in the 70’s and 80’s. It was a simple lesson mind you, listen to the customer and not some pompous ass in a boardroom. Hi Carly. I mean, Carrol Shelby (brilliant man, not pompous ass) was good however if you look along every product line from the 60’s, they had the same boxy appearances that mimicked each other year by year.

Cars have very similar looks today yet that’s because it’s FUNCTIONAL, a trait instilled by engineers. Imagine that. But then again, who would think the nerdy nature of a sitcom such as “The Big Bang Theory” would be such a success. That successful show is tough competition for mindless insights to everyday Joes crawling around cars and shooting alligators just because the name “swamp” is in the show’s title. Seriously America shut that off and pick up the dumb bells or watch a youtube video to learn Sketchup. Or at the very list, watch “Idiocracy” so you have no reason to pass on the trait of shrugging shoulders to your descendants.

Where were we? Oh yeah; blog, short, Prius, pride in electrical engineering. The sales success of the Prius is only one testament to the power of engineering. This car has won numerous awards for safety and design. The second generation alone won 530 patents. The drag coefficient of nearly 0.26 was half of that of the 0.5 barrier which at the time of its achievement was monumental. The 0.5 level was attained by Subaru in a two seater wedge design that I have long since forgotten the name of. Notice again, it wasn’t Detroit.

Although the Prius established a market for basic transportation through a guerrilla marketing technique, it has transformed from a compact car to a mid-sized sensation. In fact more buyers purchase the vehicle for status than fuel efficiency.

These achievements may be great for those viewing the car on the surface however looking beneath the skin provides an insight into the innovative nature of this vehicle. For example, software plays a part in charging the battery to 60 percent. This has two advantages; it is the most favorable charge rate for battery life and it leaves some headroom for regenerative braking. In other words, don’t input energy you aren’t going to use. Instead recapture it. This parallels the advice for the best goal line defense; don’t let them down there to begin with. Beyond regenerative braking, the Prius is a marvel of energy recapture and efficiency. For example, heat has been recaptured and stored for faster warmups. The engine and the catalytic converter are both heat sources that have been used. The drive train has become 20% lighter. The belt system has been totally eliminated. The AC and power steering systems are both totally electric. This takes away a lot of the Rodney Dangerfield image for us engineers as we now get respect.

As with any design, there are negatives. The Prius gets a few black marks for its high content of rare earth metals as well as the silent design creating the potential for stealth based accidents. These are considerations for sure however the success greatly overshadows the faults.

I cannot close this writing without clarifying some things about Detroit. What was once a great mecca of American achievement is now a pathetic wasteland that resulted from greed and arrogance. It’s not a fault of the people. My vision of Detroit is the Lions on a Thanksgiving afternoon caked in mud with visible breaths due to the difference in temperature from the outside air to the air exiting the lungs. Dave Bing, former Syracuse alumni and Detroit Mayor did what he could for this town. He was in a tough situation as he was being a black athlete in the 60’s. It would be really nice to see this city come back. There is a way to do it. Hire visionaries like Elon Musk instead of greedy, pompous….. well, you know whats. BTW, ROI is a big part of your failures of the past. Where is the American taxpayer’s ROI? In your pocket, not ours? I thought so. Was that a Toyota that just passed us?

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