By Eddie Ehlert
I remember reading "Popular Mechanics" as a kid and learning about changes coming in personal transportation. Back then the heavy bet was on "external combustion" engines spinning a generator. Well, they got it half right. Hybrid vehicles are still spinning a generator for propulsion. They are also just using variations of the same engines we've come to understand, with 40 percent increased fuel economy.
The ongoing increase in fuel prices is quickly changing the hybrid concept from a novelty to a standard vehicle. If you're not prepared to service these vehicles, no problem! Maybe your competition will bring you up to speed!
Sales of hybrid vehicles have gone from barely noticeable in 1999 to approximately 85,000 units last year. While that is less than 1 percent of total vehicle sales, it represents a fraction that has doubled or tripled each year since their introduction. And remember: When they were introduced, regular gasoline was about $.80 a gallon.
When we speak of "hybrid" power plants, the current offerings are essentially from Toyota (64 percent of sales), Honda (31 percent of sales) and Ford (3 percent of sales) - with semihybrid vehicles from General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG making up the difference. The majority of my personal experience is with Toyota and Ford systems.
The Toyota and Ford offerings are closer to "true hybrid," allowing the electric motor to start the vehicle in motion and operate it at low to moderate speeds until battery depletion requires the engine to start for battery recharge and higher speeds. Regenerative capabilities when coasting and braking allow recouping some momentum into electricity (making use of energy we have been wasting for decades).
All the while, hybrids are equipped with the creature comforts we have come to expect from any other car. If you haven't driven one yet, give it a try. It really is an unusual feeling to pull away from a light and cruise along at lower speeds with no engine running.
Accomplishing the task of greater fuel efficiency requires a completely different power conversion from fuel ignition to rotating wheel. The engine is, of course, highly efficient. The transmission is also an electric motor and generator. On top of the power unit is the converter/inverter for the constant changes from high to low voltage, as well as DC to AC and back, to charge batteries and power the vehicle. The transmission/inverter has a separate cooling system with a high voltage electric pump. A giant bank of batteries is under the back seat. All functions require close oversight from a management system that not only has all the engine management functions we understand - it has to decide the best use of current, momentum and, of course, fuel.
What does this mean to us? Job security, of course! It's still a car. If we are still going to burn gasoline, this is likely the way we will be doing it long after the last V8 has been relegated to a museum. There are obvious safety concerns relative to much higher-operating voltages. Aside from the regenerative aspect to the transmission, the brakes are still brakes. Due to efficiency concerns, the climate control system is not brimming with overcapacity. Our customers don't want to open the hood (except for a peek), and they expect us to rise to the challenge.
Overall, these are not vehicles we are likely to see being tinkered on in the parking lot of parts stores anytime soon. Full life expectancy and maximum energy efficiency will require the best of our efforts. The modifications' adaptation of "super warranty" legislation allows us service access to these vehicles. It is an opportunity we must maximize, lest it get away from us. Most of the systems are well designed and require our attention to detail.
Overall, these vehicles are not ready for the do-it-yourselfers in the near term. Full life expectancy and maximum energy efficiency will require the best of our efforts. The language we have been able to include in hybrid/warranty legislation so far provides a new service access opportunity that we must maximize. These new systems are well designed and will likely pass the customer test. Remember: We have seen new ideas that were met with derision, such as EFI. Think of how much you miss cleaning out carburetors. That's why!
| Eddie Ehlert has worked in the automotive service industry since 1977 and owns two shops - MazdOnly (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) and ToyOnly in Georgia. An ASA member since 1991, Ehlert is immediate past president of ASA-Georgia and serves on ASA's National Government Affairs Committee.