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A Toyota Prius owner waits for the recall

Last summer, CNET's Martin LaMonica wanted to see if his new Prius could hit the magic 50-mpg mark. Now he's wondering when his spiffy hybrid will get a fix for faulty brakes.

Having just hung up with my Toyota dealer, I know nothing more than I did yesterday. My 2010 Toyota Prius, which I bought last summer, is expected to be among those 150,000 recalled in the U.S. for a braking problem. But an official notice won't come until at least next week.

The recall is a financial and public relations disaster for Toyota, coming on the heels of larger recalls of several Toyota models because of acceleration problems.

For average consumers like me, though, the plight of Toyota's squeaky green Prius says more about auto technology than an individual manufacturer. Toyota critics contend the superstar automaker expanded too fast internationally, which led to quality problems. It's also been harshly criticized by U.S. government officials for a pattern of not responding quickly to technical problems. Clearly, Toyota's rock-solid brand is taking a hit.

But Ford, too, will have to make fixes to the regenerative braking system on two of its hybrid models. Ford and Toyota will be issuing software updates to resolve the issues. In the Prius and one closely related Lexus model, the antilock braking system give drivers an "inconsistent feel" when braking over rough or bumpy surfaces. The core problem is the electronic interface between the ABS and the regenerative braking system, according to reports. Word is it takes about half an hour to fix.

Electrical storm
I'm not sure if having a mechanical problem or an electrical problem is worse, but as cars become more high tech, it's pretty safe to say that we can expect more software glitches and gremlins that could elude even the best testers and mechanics.

In other words, the bugs that nag us while in front of the computer have migrated to our cars. Rather than just a reboot, the fix in this case requires a software upgrade. In its FAQ for customers, Toyota says mechanics will be able to alter the antilock brake system by refreshing the car's software.

It could get even trickier as more plug-in hybrids and electric cars hit the road in the coming years. In many cases, drivers will need software inside the car and out to adjust to the new system of electronically fueling a car. General Motors and Nissan are writing smartphone applications that will allow a driver to remotely control electric car functions, such as air conditioning, or to schedule when to charge the car. Of high importance is the charge state of a car's batteries--not much room for errors there if automakers want to avoid stranded drivers.

Ford has fully adopted the software geek credo by making APIs that will allow third parties to write applications, including the Pandora streaming music service, to run in its cars. In that case, the car is literally a software development platform.

If it hasn't been obvious yet, the auto industry will need to make software engineering and power electronics ever more central to what they do. As the industry transitions to electric propulsion either through hybrid power trains or electric motors, carmakers simply can't rely on mechanical controls any more. The challenge is testing the layers and layers of complexity that software adds without sacrificing safety.

OK for now
So am I losing sleep over my Prius? So far, no. Toyota made technical mistakes and apparently fumbled in acting on the problem. But I don't think I've encountered this specific problem, even over potholed roads. Again, my issue is far less serious than the sticking accelerator that Toyota is also dealing with, so I feel fortunate.

I bought the Prius because I wanted a reliable and very fuel-efficient car. (Specifically, I was hoping to get the advertised 50-plus miles per gallon when when driving around town.) And I'm certainly not alone: the Prius was the top-selling car in Japan last year, and Ford's Fusion hybrid won car of the year honors at this year's North American International Auto Show.

There have been moments when I marvel at how many of the cars I see day to day are made by Japanese companies, and many of them are Toyotas. I've read reports about how consumers may think twice about buying a Toyota again due to its problems although I suspect the company will recover since loyalty takes years to build and erode. But even for non-Prius owners, the case is reminder of our growing high-tech dependence.

In the meantime, all I can do is wait and hope the upgrade is a bug-free fix.