003: Test and delivery  [mine!]

I had done it -- in a moment of clarity, I had made up my mind, and commited
to a real change in dealing with transportation.  The next week and a half
was a bit of a blur, filled with anticipation and absolutely no regrets.
I arranged with Gilles that I'd come back in a few days to "take the car to
my mechanic", haha, because that's me.  In other words, I'd have a solid
chance to check the car out as thoroughly as I could manage, which wasn't
going to be all that extensive given the weather at the time.  The muddy
slush of early March is not exactly conducive to crawling around under cars.

Still, I could do basic inspection like make sure nothing was coming loose
or missing or damaged, and that all the things mentioned in the pre-delivery
check sheet were present and accounted for, and poke Gilles to make sure all
the recall or "special service campaign" work had been done to it or would be
done before I took delivery.  There were a few TSBs out for the '04 model at
this point, one being an actual recall involving the brake-light switch which
evidently had a tendency to corrode and go flakey within a certain range of
VINs from particular factories.  Defective OEM part, or something, and easy
to replace, but the Feds had gotten involved because if someone stops without
the brake lights coming on, that's a big safety issue.  While some of the
issues had supposedly been fixed at manufacture time in the '05 I still
felt a little safer staying slightly behind the curve with a set of known
corrections, not to mention way *ahead* of the waiting list.  I also asked
Gilles to try and pull all of the previous maintenance records, if any, from
Toyota's database, and was mildly astounded when he agreed to try.

Between items from the online forums and several very helpful FAQs, I formed
up more of my Checklists from Hell and made some financial arrangements.
In another couple of days I was back at Gilles' desk, and sat there wading
through paperwork while a major snowstorm gathered outside and settled into
the area.  Then it was time to go visit the finance guy, whose desk was over
near the Dodge section.  I could barely find it behind this huge ridiculous
silver rich-boy muscle pickup truck with the V10 Triton and huge rims and a
dorky not-quite-ricer wing above the tailgate.  While waiting for the finance
guy to find some forms, I hung out and sort of needled the Dodge fellows
sitting near it, who freely admitted that the 7 mpg listed on the sticker
for this monster was optomistic at best.  I took a quick peek underneath this
"bad ride" to look at the business end and immediately regretted it, as a
smear of that tire sidewall-shine goop came off all over my hands.  Blech,
in all kinds of ways.  Enough towing power to rip the hitch clean off, over
$50,000, and nobody buying.  Totally serves them right for marketing this kind
of excessive crap.  I already knew the relative merit of the path *I* was
beginning to travel, and that "Prius smugness" was already starting to set in.

An hour or so into this my checkbook was a smoking ruin, and Gilles amusedly
handed me the key-fob and sent me out into the rising storm.  Another careful
navigation around and then out of their parking lot and down the side street
toward the deserted parking lot of the golf course.  Golf cart, golf course,
I thought, how appropriate.  Here was a virgin expanse of a couple inches of
new snow to play in, and the challenge that the traction control would try
to be smarter than the driver.

To briefly summarize, the next two hours of snow-driving were an absolutely
awesome learning experience.  Not only is it fairly easy to fake out the
traction control with the parking brake and break the back end loose to spin
around, but when allowed to work as it should the traction monitoring gives
the car remarkable agility and ability to pull gently through slippery stuff.
On only two drive wheels, of course.  The big secret is not to punch it, but
feather -- true in any car, really, but the Prius seems to respond well to
that.  Flooring the accelerator and waiting makes it take a huge dig with
the wheels and then immediately back off power while flickering the little
fishtailing-car icon, and it'll keep uselessly doing this over and over with
very slow progress.  But requesting just enough drive force to move lets the
system work much better with less tendency to oscillate.  My apprehension over
going back to a 2-wheel drive vehicle was already diminishing rapidly, and
at the time I didn't even know about the grab-one-wheel traction-control
trick that the braking computer can do to compensate for spin on one side.

Time to actually get it out on a real highway, and see if those several
complaints on the forums about alignment and high-speed wandering held any
merit.  After tracking up about every square foot of the golf-course lot I
headed back out and made my way to 495 and up a couple of exits.  Conditions
were already getting fairly questionable out there and traffic was reasonably
heavy because lots of people were going home early -- the weather reports
were going on about the ferocity of this one, and of course everyone had to
bail out of work and go crowd the grocery stores for bread and milk.  [Is
this just a New England thing?  It's weird.]  But the Prius tracked right
through it with no trouble, hands completely off the wheel at times just
to watch for external influences.  I came back off the highway and spent
about another half-hour spinning around in the big parking lots behind the
EMC building, where there was way more room than the golf course and allowed
more run-up before swinging into the next careful loss of control.  And it was
clearly a brute test of the windshield wipers and defroster, since snow was
really starting to come down.  Somewhere in there I got out and had the best
look I could manage underneath, in part to see how crapped-up everything was
getting from flying slush, and make sure the plastic airflow-panels weren't
in any danger.  To keep parts very light, much of the underbody covering is
completely non-structural plastic -- no big studly 4x4 skid plates here!

It was hard to take it back.  But it was beginning to get dark and Route 9
was getting packed up, so I had to head back to the dealership.  While out
on this run I definitely recognized and played with the various drive modes
of the hybrid system -- stealth acceleration under electric power while
poking along in traffic, full regenerative braking, floating along with the
engine off and no drive going in either direction, all the way up to hard
acceleration.  I found I could hear heavy regeneration -- a soft whine
coming from the inverter electronics as the power transistors screamed
under the load, going down to sort of a sullen, electric-motor-like growl
just before kicking out at low speed and triggering that rats-nest of
solenoids to do physical braking.  Definitely a golf cart on steroids.

I parked it around the side where Gilles had told me and came back into the
showroom positively glowing.  Now, even though I was in this somewhat bass-
ackwards process of test-driving something I'd already *paid* for, even if
Gilles' job was effectively done, he's true to his word where "customer
relationship" is concerned.  After failing to find an empty desk with a
working computer, he sat me down at his own machine to poke through the
"Techinfo" site and wandered off to do things elsewhere.  This was my first
real go at looking through the service-manual and support site, and I
immediately found lots of fascinating things.  Some time later Gilles came
back and found me staring at the "overall electrical diagram", and said
"why don't you just *print* that?"  ... so I did, and [thump!] 60 pages
later I had my very own full wiring diagram -- from which to start designing
the hacks, of course!  I had already found several possibilities for where
to pull a tachometer signal, in fact.  I think Gilles thought at this point
that I was intending to convert the car into some sort of monster-truck.
Well, that would certainly kill the mileage, now wouldn't it??

At this point we could talk intelligently about delivery preparation, and
how he'd take care of the brake-switch recall and have the alignment rechecked
and make sure the floor mats were in and while they were at it, do the 15000
mile service a little early.  Westboro was apparently cool with doing all
of that; I'll probably never know if I was helping them clear hard-to-sell
inventory or if it's just SOP over there.  Gilles seemed to think the car
would be ready for pickup in just two or three days including all the RMV
paperwork and new plates, which even given the speed at which this process
was happening sounded completely surreal.  But of course they do this all
the time... Finally we realized that *we* all should clear out of there and
travel before things got really socked in.

Well, it was already too late.  It took me till 11:00 to get home that night,
in fact, through one of the most amazing total-whiteout snowstorms that I've
seen in a while.  I crawled all the way back in on Route 9, at times unable
to see ten feet ahead.  By the time I reached 128 there was thunder and
lightning around.  I don't even want to *think* what all this was doing to
the mileage in the old wagon, which to its credit was forging a path through
all this quite well regardless.  Halfway up 93 I spotted a car half off the
road and stopped to help this poor guy out; he had somehow gone awry and
hopped one wheel over this little triangular lip of pavement just beyond the
shoulder and down the grass a little, and had already burnished the area down
to slick ice trying to just brute-force his way out.  He had no tools, and
was just wearing a sweater -- caught totally by surprise, and just trying to
get home.  We managed to clear out enough snow from under the car with the
butt of my window brush that he could actually move again, and between
rocking and pushing we finally lurched him back onto the road.

It occurred to me as I half-slid my way into the ill-plowed streets near home
that a Prius probably *would* have a bit of trouble with something like this,
mostly because of lower ground clearance.  Regardless, driving more of the
wheels [such as, say, the Highlander would be able to do with its secondary
motor in the rear] can help, but with something in the form factor of a car
it's not clear how much the improvement really is.  Most of it really has to
do with people, who never make it a point to go out and *practice* driving in
snow.  All the driven wheels in the world won't save them if they don't
understand the dynamics.

After a quick burst of shoveling out a slot to park and settling in for the
night, I began contacting local friends who might be able to get me back to
Westboro sometime later in the week.  I wasn't trading the wagon in, with the
idea of keeping it as a backup while working on the Prius and eventually
selling it privately since car dealers always shaft people doing tradeins.
[Gilles even looked all this up at Kelly Blue Book and pointed out the value
difference, and agreed with my idea.]  To shorten this part and protect the
guilty, as the locals continued failing to answer their mail I apprehensively
began reaching a bit farther afield, but still trying hard to not just impose
on people, and finally made the arrangements.  Overall, it became hard to
concentrate on anything else that week, even though I had to work a gig for a
couple of days -- in a hotel way up on a hill, in fact, and while driving out
from it in the wagon all I could think about was how all that brake-scraping
on the way down could have been recaptured energy, and that I *would* be able
to do that in a few more days...  it wasn't just new-car anticipation at work
here, it was the prospect of being able to play a whole different game with
gravity that had me so tickled.

   = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Fast-forward another few days and into *another* but much milder snowstorm,
with me and another friend who's something of a car enthusiast in his truck
pulling into the dealership.  I finalized more paperwork while he wandered
out back and snapped some pictures of a Prius that had been clobbered in the
hood by a loose wheel at 70 mph a couple of weeks before -- that lady was
very lucky to be alive.  Gilles had actually found the maintenance records
from Enterprise -- all completely routine, no repairs.  And he had a printout
of the alignment check, and promised a tube of touch-up paint for the minor
dings and some of the fiber washers that go on the oil drain plug.  Both of
us were sporting big grins as he handed over the package of keyfobs, manuals,
and other stuff.  "Here's your ... *fob*," he said, still being amused that
the Prius uses the RFID transponder in the plastic fob itself rather than a
traditional metal ignition key to authenticate startup, erm, booting.

We shook hands and I went out into the soggy morning to run through yet
another checklist, mostly compiled from the official pre-delivery dealer
list and a couple of FAQs.  They hadn't really cleaned the interior very
well, but everything else seemed to be present and accounted for.  At long
last I got in and headed for 495 again, but this time to keep going all
the way to home.  With the computer showing north of 50 mpg, too, since
traffic in the persistent slushy rain was slow.  It was finally mine!  As
the soggy stuff ceased later and I drove it around for the rest of the day's
errands, it felt more and more like a natural match to my driving style.

A day or so later, I announced it to a couple of lists of my
technically-inclined cronies:

    Subject: vehicular lifestyle changes
    Date: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 21:52:07

    An era has ended, and a new one has begun.  I just bought a Prius.

    Before you ask "who are you and where's Hobbit," i.e. the one we used
    to see out in the driveway tweaking carburetor screws and twisting
    the distributor, blipping the throttle and tuning the powerplant by
    earball, you must understand that after several weeks of intensive
    research, reading-of-many-warstories, and grubbing through some very
    dry but interesting patent text, I have gained a greater perspective.
    What began as "why the hell would anyone want to put a computer in a
    car" and progressed through measuring subtle voltage changes at the
    throttle position sensor input to hack in an anti-lurching "float
    switch", has now evolved into "Okay, I'm golf-carting around almost
    entirely by wire, with five high-powered servers under my ass and an
    end-to-end CAN bus and an engine that starts up whenever it feels like."

    They could have made the instrumentation much more detailed, but one
    can safely assume that many hacks are pending.  Much more data can be
    obtained by speaking the right protocol through the diagnostic port.
    The geek factor of this thing is through the roof, and gliding around
    parking lots with no sound except a little tire noise totally rocks.

    This implementation per se may not be "the car of the future" as Toyota
    is so quick to offer as marketspeak, but it's certainly a step in
    several right directions.  The stuff that modern automotive engineers
    think about and take into consideration is really amazing, and Toyota
    seems to be way ahead of the pack in terms of getting a whole bunch
    of stuff right.  It's hilarious how other carmakers, particularly the
    domestic ones, are pulling a Microsoft by licensing Toyota's planetary
    power-split driveline and associated glue, and then screwing it up --
    the hybrid Ford Escape being a prime example, which is already having
    numerous problems in the field.

    Sure, it's a bit of a hit in terms of cargo space, although the '04 and
    up hatchback design is respectably cavernous in back for a vehicle of
    this size class and drag coefficient.  Rear volume and usable bed length
    were some of the deciding factors, in fact.  I can live with what it
    provides for a while, since the minivan form-factor hybrid [that they've
    had in Japan for like 2-3 years now, grrrr] hasn't hit these shores yet
    and the hybrid Highlander is still an overpowered brute and not all
    that large inside anyways.  A Prius may be another interim measure,
    but all told it's a heckuvalot *better* one than the Subaru.

    The only big downer is the lack of ECU source code and dev kit.  But
    we shall not give up hope simply because Toyota says "no".

Within a couple of days I thought I noticed my first problem.  The right-
rear brake seemed sticky and late to release at slow speed, such as while
backing out of a driveway -- and of course because of that damned creep, one
is forced to rely on the brakes for speed control which is almost impossible
to do smoothly in the first place.  The way the car lurched definitely
pointed to the right rear wheel as the sort of pivot-point for this effect,
and I started getting all paranoid thinking it might have been bad solenoids
in the brake actuator or something.  However, I remembered that this is winter
in New England, aka salt season, and brakes will easily get crapped up and
rusty within half a day of sitting around wet.  One has only to look at
this picture to immediately understand.

But the solution is easy.  I found that moving into Neutral while going down
a hill and applying the brakes hard but evenly defeats regeneration and uses
100% physical brakes to stop, and the grinding sound that then smoothed out
and went away told me that that's all I needed to do -- sacrifice a little
kinetic energy as heat and actually *use* the brakes once in a while to clean
them off.  But already the idea of that energy loss was not sitting well with
me, because my transformation into "mileage monster" was subtly beginning.