Fancy wheels, air bags and catalytic converters have long been targets for car thieves who specialize in expensive parts. Now there’s a new hot item for some daring burglars: The battery packs from hybrid vehicles, specifically the Toyota Prius.
According to KGO-TV, these crimes are becoming prevalent around the San Francisco area, with many local Toyota dealers reporting that they’ve each had “five or six″ customers bring in their Priuses for stolen battery pack — enough of a rash that replacements are now in short supply.
Why the Prius? Well, early generation Prii are seeing their 8-year/100,000-mile (or 10-year/150,000-mile, if you live in a state that adopts California’s emissions regulations) battery warranty come to an end. This means demand for replacement batteries is rising, and while costs can reach close to $3,000 for a new one, used batteries on Craigslist go for around $500-$1,000.
But stealing one is not like looting a catalytic converter, or replacing wheels with cinder blocks. The battery pack weighs around 120 pounds and could easily electrocute the careless. In these cases, the thieves — who many believe are part of the same group due to similar techniques used to remove the battery — smash the rear windows, cut all the connecting wires (according to one Toyota dealer, the battery does not give off power when the car is off), and rip the battery and its corresponding modules out of the trunk.
The criminals in the Bay Area aren’t shy about what they’re doing: Pro Speed Auto Body Shop told us one of the cars they repaired recently had its battery boosted while parked on a busy street, right outside a church. The estimated cost to repair the damage? A cool $7,000; the thieves not only get the battery, but damage many expensive-to-replace wiring components in the process.
A San Francisco area Toyota dealer told Yahoo Autos that removing a battery correctly would typically take over an hour for a highly trained mechanic; we’re told these thieves tore the 273-volt unit out in around 20 minutes.
San Francisco is not the only place seeing this trend. A Prius with its battery stolen was reported in Sacramento earlier this year, and at least 14 Toyota Camry Hybrids had their batteries purloined around the Long Island City streets in New York — the latter of which were all from local taxi fleets.
What’s most puzzling about all of this is that the batteries stolen in San Fransisco were primarily from the newest, third-generation Toyota Prius, which launched in 2009. These batteries would need the cells reassembled into a new housing to work on earlier generation Priuses where aging batteries are most likely to need replacing, and there are few cases of 2009 models or later with faulty battery packs.
So either there’s a lot of post-theft-elbow-grease going into making these batteries capable of fitting older Priuses prior to selling them, or taxi fleets — where mileage in newer models can skyrocket quickly — are having battery issues and thus causing a boom in the black market for used generation three batteries. (Another reason the packs may be a target: They carry no ID that ties them to a specific vehicle, making them easy to sell.)
For now at least, the robberies seem localized. Yahoo Autos spoke to numerous Toyota dealers from across the country, and we heard of no similar issues outside of San Fransisco — not even in Los Angeles.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau told us that in a study from 2012, it saw a sizable increase in thefts of Prii from 2008 onwards (roughly 2,000 of the 2,439 thefts derived post that date). While that total number is still very low compared to other vehicles, according to the NICB, “With the Prius being a relatively new vehicle, body parts might not be in that great a demand. However, the only part that might make this lucrative is the battery pack since that is a singularly expensive item to replace.”
Toyota did not respond to our request for further information, but Luscious Garage in San Fransisco says that the smartest way to ward off thieves is to replace the 12mm bolts that hold the battery in place with tamper-proof options, and shield the harnesses in sheet metal. While not bulletproof, making it tougher and more time consuming for criminals to steal could at least make them think twice about their shocking crime.