With more than 3.3 million Toyota Prius hybrids now on the roads of the world — and more than 1.4 million in the U.S. alone — there’s a growing market for parts and accessories, both aftermarket and original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
The most expensive part of a Toyota Prius hybrid — its Nickel-Metal Hydride battery — costs around $3,000 to replace when done at an approved Toyota dealer, but with a usual life of around 100,000 to 150,000 miles or more, many battery packs can outlive the car they’re in. For those early first and second-generation (2001-2009) Prius hybrids still on the road however, battery replacement becomes a more likely necessity as the car ages.
Some of those owners will no doubt get official replacements through approved channels like licensed parts suppliers or Toyota dealerships, but those who baulk at the idea of spending large sums of money on 10+ year old car may look for alternative ways to keep their hybrids happy — no questions asked.
And it’s that demand for cheap, used Prius hybrid battery packs which seems to be behind a new and unusual automotive crime wave in San Francisco, where owners of 2010 thru 2015 Prius hybrid liftbacks are finding their car’s hybrid battery packs are being stolen and sold on.
As The Verge reports, a team of seemingly trained criminals are targeting third-generation Prii in the San Francisco Bay area, smashing the car’s tailgate glass to gain access to the rear load bay area under which the prized NiMH battery packs live.
They’re then disconnecting the battery pack from the car by cutting the thick orange high-voltage cables — a process which is both highly dangerous and requires at least some basic knowledge of the Prius in order to prevent electrocution — and unbolting it from the vehicle, removing the 120-pound pack through the smashed tailgate in about 20 minutes.
To remove a Toyota Prius battery pack from the back of a Prius using the official Toyota-sanctioned method and fully-trained mechanics takes around 1 hour.
The batteries are then listed on third-party sites like eBay and Craigslist for around a third of their usual replacement value, representing a bargain for anyone wanting to buy a replacement battery pack for their car and a sizeable profit for the 20-minutes of work for the criminals involved.
While the problem isn’t specific to San Francisco — similar thefts have been reported in Sacramento and New York in recent months — San Francisco does appear to be something of a hotspot. At the time of writing, theft levels aren’t at epidemic proportions, but there have certainly been enough similar thefts from parked Prii for both the local law enforcement and Toyota dealers to notice.
From what we can tell, thieves do appear to be targeting newer Prius models, presumably because newer cars are likely to have newer, longer-life battery packs in them than older models. But as anyone who has worked on a Prius hybrid will tell you, each generation of Prius has its own specific battery pack design. In fact, the first-generation Prius had two distinct battery pack designs according to its year and original market.
Since those early cars are most likely to be the ones needing a replacement pack, thieves looking to sell on used third-generation battery packs as replacements for first and second generation models must either repackage the cells in an older model-year casing, or prey on the naivety of the person buying the pack.
While those with third-generation Prii in areas where thefts have occurred may want to ensure their cars are parked in safe neighborhoods to avoid putting their car at risk of pack theft, those with first or second generation cars who are looking for a replacement battery pack can follow some really simple advice to ensure that they’re not unwittingly buying a stolen third-generation battery pack for their car.
Firstly, while authorised Toyota dealerships and fully-trained non-Toyota hybrid specialists may charge more for replacement Prius battery packs, they should come with a limited warranty that makes the extra money worthwhile. If you sell your car on after getting an official OEM replacement, it’s likely to be worth far more if you can prove the replacement pack is an original, official Toyota part installed by appropriately-trained staff.
Second, if you must buy a used battery pack from an unknown source online or an official breaker’s yard, always ask for the VIN number of the car the battery pack came from. Any parts supplier operating legally should have meticulous records tying the VIN number of the car to the battery pack — and possibly even be able to show you the car it came out of.
If the vendor can’t provide you with a proper paper trail, the chances are it’s stolen.
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