Prius safety features advancing by leaps and bounds

Ray Magliozzi
Ray Magliozzi

Dear Car Talk:

I have a basic 2006 Prius that I bought new. It replaced a 1998 Corolla. How do the advancements in safety features between those two vehicles compare to the advancements between the 2006 Prius and a basic 2021 Prius? — Vic

RAY: Night and day, Vic.

Your ’98 Corolla had two airbags, and seatbelts with pre-tensioners. That was pretty basic. Antilock brakes were optional, as were side airbags. And given your “frugality” profile, I’m guessing you didn’t have those. Other than that, the most important safety feature on the 1998 Corolla was probably the rear window defroster.

Your 2006 Prius is safer. ABS was standard, so you have that. They added side-impact bars to the doors, which help. But side airbags and electronic stability control were optional. And since you say you have a “basic” Prius, I’m guessing you didn’t spring for those.

Cut to 2021, and it’s a whole new world. Electronic stability control is standard, and there are now some 10 airbags. You get side impact airbags — front and rear — side curtain airbags to protect your head and the driver even gets a knee airbag, in case you’re still hoping for a career in soccer, Vic.

But the biggest safety advances are electronic. The 2021 Prius comes with what Toyota calls their Safety Sense package. That includes automatic emergency braking. So if you’re distracted watching your mileage tick from 53.4 to 53.5 and don’t see a car stop in front of you, the Prius will warn you to brake and will even brake for you if you don’t react in time. The system senses pedestrians, too. The 2021 Prius warns you if you start to drift out of your lane on the highway, and even nudges you back into it.

It alerts you when someone is driving in your blind spot, so you don’t change lanes into a Tombstone Pizza truck. It has a backup camera, and it warns you if a car is coming down the street from either direction as you’re backing out of your driveway. It also has a head-up display, which projects your vehicle speed through the windshield, so the information appears to be floating at the end of your hood. That allows you to know how fast you’re going (and see your GPS turn directions) without ever taking your eyes off the road.

There’s really been a revolution in the last, I’d say, five years or so as this equipment — which is all based on self-driving car technology — has worked its way down from expensive cars to more common cars. And these systems are definitely saving both lives and sheet metal.

So if you have a car that’s 5 or 10 years old, or more, and you’re on the fence about whether to get a new one, you can get a huge upgrade in safety if you buy a car now. Check to be sure all the crucial stuff (all the stuff we list above) comes standard on the car you want. Or, if any of it is optional, make sure the car you buy has it.

But it’s night and day from 2006 to 2021. Not to mention the extra 6 miles per gallon. Oh, now you’re interested, Vic!

Argument for electric cars will grow even stronger over time

Dear Car Talk:

I keep wondering about electric cars and emissions. Unless you charge from a home with solar panels, you have to charge your car from the electric grid, which mostly uses natural gas. That would cause pollution. Everyone seems to think that if you drive an electric car, you have no pollution footprint, but that is not the case.

Perhaps hydrogen fuel cells might have a better pollution footprint since I believe the emissions would be nothing but water vapor. What do you think is the best way to proceed with this long-term decision? — Roger

RAY: You’re right that there’s very little free energy, Roger, unless you always drive downhill. But here’s why electric cars create less pollution than gasoline-powered cars. With a gas-powered car, you have tens of millions of engines, and tens of millions of catalytic converters, all in different states of age, maintenance and disrepair.

While most states have annual or biannual emissions inspections, it’s a lot harder to police tens of millions of individual cars — where a guy can slip a mechanic a $50 to help him cheat the emissions test — than it is to police a few thousand power plants.

Fewer and fewer power plants run on coal these days, which has the worst pollution footprint of the fossil fuels. There are lots of plants that run on natural gas, which, while not as clean as wind and solar, is cleaner than oil and gasoline.

And, increasingly, utilities are adding solar and wind power to their generation systems. So, over time, I would expect the amount of pollution created by our electric grid to drop and the argument for electric vehicles to get stronger.

Add to that: Electric cars remove pollution from places where traffic is densest and air pollution is the worst, like in crowded cities. So electric cars should make a big dent in air quality and public health over time.

Hydrogen is a possibility. Hydrogen fuel cells work by combining hydrogen with oxygen to create water, a chemical reaction that produces electricity. That electricity is created onboard the vehicle, and then used to power an electric motor. And, as you say, Roger, the only by-product is water.

The biggest advantage to hydrogen, at the moment, is that it can provide a longer range than some of today’s batteries and allows you to refuel in about the same time as it takes to fill a traditional gas tank. But you have to make, transport, store and deliver the hydrogen. And unless you do all that with renewable energy, hydrogen power creates some pollution, too.

So what’s the best way to proceed long term? Well, if you live in a place where solar power works well, you can reduce your pollution footprint by getting an electric car and charging it at home using your own solar panels.

And in the bigger picture, the best thing we can do to reduce automobile pollution and improve public health is to move toward electric or fuel cell cars and work to increase the percentage of renewable, non-polluting generation in our electric grids.

Got a question about cars? Write to Car Talk write to Ray in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email by visiting the Car Talk website at www.cartalk.com.

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