California Prius drivers wait months for catalytic converters

When the catalytic converter was stolen from Vanessa Reimer’s Toyota Prius in Long Beach, she thought the repair would be simple and only take a few weeks at most.

Then his local dealer announced the bad news: the spare part could take six months to arrive. Reimer, who is pregnant, could have a baby before her Prius gets a new catalytic converter.

“At first I thought there must be something I could do,” said Reimer, 32, a speech therapist at an elementary school, before learning there were 100 other drivers waiting on the same part. “But there are too many people in the same situation.”

For several years, older Priuses held the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 target of catalytic converter theft in California. Drivers whose converters have been hacked are now suffering a second indignity: Thousands of Prius owners are running ahead of them for the same part, and the delays could stretch for months.

Thieves target hybrids because their catalytic converters have a higher concentration of precious metals compared to cars that run on gas alone. The Prius, which was California’s best-selling car a decade ago, is an easy and lucrative target, with tens of thousands still on the road.

The theft of catalytic converters from Prius cars is a growing trend in the city.

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images


The Times called the parts departments of a dozen Toyota dealerships in Southern California and asked about the wait time for a catalytic converter for a 2011 Prius. Each service center said the part was out of stock. out of stock and not immediately available. Most said the wait would be over three months and in some cases eight or nine months.

“There are far too many being stolen, and there are thousands out of stock,” an employee said apologetically. Another said: ‘If you’re coming right now you’re looking at the end of August.’

Toyota corporate representatives did not respond to questions from The Times.

Even getting a scheduled repair date is no guarantee, as 25-year-old Anwar Glasgow found out when his catalytic converter was stolen in January. A Toyota service center in Van Nuys said repairing its 2012 Prius would take six months, possibly less. Now they think his car won’t be ready until October.

Glasgow’s insurance will pay to have the new part fitted, but will not subsidize a rental car for more than a month or total the unusable Prius so he can buy something else.

“I’m screwed, to be honest with you,” said Glasgow, 25, an aspiring actor who now walks and skateboards 3 miles each way to get to his job as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant. The flight “feels like you’re being hit while you’re down…it’s quite demoralizing”.

The frequency of partial theft reports for older Priuses, a category that includes theft of catalytic converters, jumped in California by nearly 850% over a two-year period, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit organization. profit financed by the insurance industry.

There has been a “sharp increase” in the number of catalytic converter thefts in Los Angeles this year, according to Police Chief Michel Moore, with 406 more reported in the first five weeks of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022.

“I’m very surprised,” Moore told the police commission last month. Flights can take as little as a minute, he said, and are “easy picks” for crews looking for favorite makes and models of cars.

Fed up with theft and long waits for spare parts, some frustrated Prius owners are ditching their hybrids altogether.

Ryan Eason, 28, discovered in January that his catalytic converter had been stolen from a secure garage when he and his fiancee got into the car to go look at wedding rings.

Ryan Eason is pictured in the Arts District on March 8.

Ryan Eason is pictured in the Arts District on March 8. Eason’s catalytic converter was stolen from his 2013 Toyota Prius while it was parked in his apartment garage in mid-January.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

A mechanic in Pasadena did the job in about seven weeks, much faster than Eason’s local Toyota dealer’s estimate of six to eight months. As soon as the repair was complete, Eason drove to his parents’ home in Carlsbad and left the Prius there.

“I don’t think it’s a permanent solution,” said Eason, an attorney. “But since this car is a prime target, I’m just going to keep it somewhere safe for now, so I don’t have to think about it for a while.”

There are only a few catalytic converters the California Air Resources Board has approved for use on older Priuses, including one sold by Toyota for around $1,800 and a model from Magnaflow listed at around $2,800. Both are sold almost everywhere.

Catalytic converters have one of the longest lead times in the industry, taking four to nine months to manufacture, said Mark Wakefield of AlixPartners, a global consultancy that works with automotive customers.

It’s complicated to manufacture the devices, which house porous ceramic bricks coated with precious metals, and it’s difficult for automakers to produce more of them in the short term, especially as the industry tries to recover from the supply chain issues, Wakefield said.

A photo of 112 catalytic converters seized by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

June 2022 photo of 112 catalytic converters seized by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department across the Inland Empire.

(San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department)

When new converters arrive, automakers have to decide between putting them in new cars or sending them to the service market, Wakefield said.

Making spare parts for older cars is “not really the supplier’s core business”, he said. “The main activity is new cars.”

Toyota doesn’t have the same wait times for all of its cars, as Mark McNeill, 46, and Nara Hernandez, 44, recently learned. The couple, who live in Silver Lake, both drive Toyotas: his a Highlander SUV, his a Prius.

In December, the Highlander’s catalytic converter was stolen on a rainy night. The repair took three days.

In January, it was the turn of the Prius. The couple’s mechanic estimated that the repair would take five months, but after two months of waiting, the timeframe increased to seven months.

“I don’t think I’m going to see my car for a year,” Hernandez said, adding that their mechanic said 60 other Priuses were ahead of them.

Getting by without two cars would be nearly impossible with two daily trips and pick-up and drop-off for their two children, the couple said.

“We were forced to make a quick decision instead of waiting for better options,” Hernandez said. They decided to buy a new car, a painful financial blow just after Christmas. Once the Prius is repaired, they plan to install a protective cage around the valuable new part.

John Jackson, an urban planner and owner of a Toyota Prius whose catalytic converter was stolen.

John Jackson, an urban planner and owner of a Toyota Prius whose catalytic converter was stolen last fall, waited weeks to have it replaced. He is shown in his car at his apartment complex on March 14 in Los Angeles.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

In September, John Jackson, a 31-year-old city planner, had his catalytic converter stolen while the car was parked on a side street in Palms. The repair took about six weeks and cost him $700, he said, including his deductible, fees and gas for a rental car, and a shield he installed to try to protect the new catalytic converter.

“Now it’s happened to a few other people I know,” Jackson said. “They came to me and asked me what to do, and I had to tell them, ‘Look, this is the timeline. You’re going to be without a car for months.

Jackson said he’s leaning towards an electric car when he finally replaces his black 2011 Prius, in part because cars without gas engines don’t have catalytic converters to steal.

In the meantime, Jackson said, automakers should do more to try to prevent such thefts, including etching catalytic converters with vehicle identification numbers to discourage illegal resales.

A bill introduced last year in Sacramento would have required automakers to do just that. The bill, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Attorney’s Office, failed in the Assembly.

Two other laws that took effect Jan. 1 require recyclers and second-hand dealers to keep proof that their catalytic converters were obtained legally and prohibit people from buying the devices from anyone other than authorized sellers.

In Los Angeles, it may soon be illegal to own a catalytic converter without proof of ownership, such as a bill of sale or a note from the previous owner.

A man wearing a baseball cap lies on the ground and uses a tool under a car while a woman kneels nearby and watches.

Det. LAPD. Mario Santana, left, helped by Det. Lisa Nguyen, carves a vehicle identification number into a car’s catalytic converter as a theft prevention measure at a free event in 2022.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The city council voted 8-4 on Tuesday to tentatively approve an ordinance that would make the violation a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both. The ordinance is scheduled for a second vote in April.

Similar laws have been passed in other Southern California cities, including Desert Hot Springs, Mission Viejo, Irvine and West Hollywood.

San Fernando Valley Councilman John Lee said LAPD officers have complained that it’s “almost impossible to hold catalytic converter thieves accountable for their crimes.” Tracing such a device to its owner and proving that someone holding the device was involved in the theft can be tricky.

Reimer of Long Beach, who faced the prospect of being carless throughout her pregnancy, had a mechanic install a catalytic converter that is not approved by the California Air Resources Board. The fix cost her $600, she said, and saved her hundreds of dollars in carpooling fees.

But the vehicle won’t pass its smog test this summer without a Toyota converter. So she’ll have to go back to the mechanic – assuming the part arrives in time.

Los Angeles Times

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