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  Mechanical Feature

Trigger Point: Is It Time You Serviced Hybrids?

Posted 6/1/2008
By Bob Chabot

Studying your market will help you decide when your shop should start servicing and repairing hybrids.

Hybrid vehicle sales have consistently climbed month after month for several consecutive years, whether expressed as total hybrids sold or as a percentage of total new vehicle sales.
Photo Credit: GreenCarCongress.com

Editor’s note: This article is not intended to address technical service and repair issues; these have been covered in other AutoInc. articles. For access to those articles, visit www.AutoInc.org, then enter “hybrid’ in the search box in the upper right corner.

In the automotive service and repair environment, where vehicles continue to evolve over time, change happens for one of two reasons: one feels enough pain or enough critical mass accumulates. Keeping pace with change and knowing when to adopt are the touchstones for shops and the technicians who toil there.

We have seen points and carburetors yield to fuel injection, OBD-I to OBD-II, and large V-8 powerplants to compact, more-efficient engines. Today’s paradigm shift is the movement to the increasing manufacture and sales of hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs). The traction that HEVs have gained will place independent shops squarely on the cusp of change, challenging them to determine when their “trigger point” to incorporate HEV servicing has been reached.

A ‘Servicing Gap’ Is Beginning to Emerge
Several factors have combined over the past few years to drive the increasing presence of hybrids. These include grinding economics, shifting consumer preferences, and political enabling. More recently, these and other factors are beginning to create opportunity for shops with an eye on the future needs of their customers.

Fuel prices have climbed steadily, with only short-term fallbacks. At the time we went to press, the nationwide pump price for gasoline recently reached $3.62 per gallon (diesel even higher), with many regions in the country seeing prices surge past the $4 level. Accelerating worldwide demand for petroleum pushed oil prices to more than $120 per barrel in early May. Even more alarming, energy analysts are predicting that oil prices will double within the next five years. Upward pressure on gas prices is here to stay, and going forward, that creates more competitive opportunity for HEVs. Politically, the push for clean, more efficient alternative energy sources by presidential candidates, legislators and policymakers is spurring hybrid and related electric technology development.

Electric propulsion systems – which include conventional hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in vehicles (PHEVs), battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) – can reduce the transportation sector’s reliance on petroleum by a significant 40 percent to 45 percent by 2030, according to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study reported at the 2008 SAE World Congress.
Photo Credit: Professor John Heywood, SAE


Major automakers have been aware of the economics and consumer trends for some time. A decade ago, only a handful of automakers were producing HEVs; today, most manufacturers offer a selection. Moreover, technology integral to HEVs is easily transferred to the development of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs), all electric plug-in vehicles and fuel cell vehicles.

For example, General Motors Corp. will begin mass production in 2010 of hybrid vehicles that will combine turbocharged, smaller-displacement gasoline engines and lithium-ion batteries – the next- generation battery that is intended to replace current nickel-metal-hydride batteries. GM says the combination will enable it to implement a hybrid system on any size vehicle it produces.

Also in 2010, Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc. will introduce a new PHEV equipped with lithium-ion battery packs. Prototypes are currently being road tested in Japan and France, as well as on two University of California campuses (Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program and Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies). This prototype plug-in hybrid system, which features an extra battery pack, can be charged overnight for a cost less than 50 cents per charge by plugging into a standard household electrical outlet. With more electric power in reserve, the new PHEV is capable of operating in pure-electric mode for longer periods of time and at much higher speeds than the current Prius, providing substantial gains in fuel economy and a reduction in total tailpipe emissions versus conventional HEV systems.

Bare Essentials
Relatively few independent shops are servicing and repairing HEVs today. Of those that do, most are on the collision side of the industry, as many dealerships do not offer collision services. On the mechanical side, original HEV eight-year/100,000-mile warranties are expiring, opening a “servicing gap” opportunity. To take advantage, shops will need to be decisive and source the right tools, information and training to service HEVs effectively, efficiently and profitably.

Fluke’s 1587 Insulation Multimeter has been updated to CAT III and CAT IV ratings to facilitate testing of high-voltage, three-phase dis-
tribution systems.
Photo Credit: Craig Van Batenburg, AAM

Necessary tools include safety gear, lifts and diagnostic equipment. Tom Henderson, a GM Service and Parts Operations spokesman, says any shop that plans to work on HEVs should have a minimum of four essential tool areas covered. He described the tool package employed at GM dealerships, sourced from SPX Corp., noting that Bosch, Snap-on, Fluke and other suppliers also have HEV tools.

Personal protective safety equipment – a must for technicians performing HEV repairs – includes Class 0 Isolation high voltage gloves (rated to 1,000 volts) and a set of orange safety cones (requirement by Ford Motor Co. at its dealerships) to provide a visible signal to all shop personnel. A floor crane and special adapters (hooks) to handle heavy HEV battery packs is another must-have. SPX’s diagnostic High Voltage PreCharge Tester EL-48458 determines if an isolation fault has occurred between the vehicle ground circuit and one of the components connected to its 300 volt circuit. Finally, obtain a multimeter that is updated for use with specialized high-voltage pinout boxes. Two-mode hybrid trucks, for instance, require a multimeter with at least a CAT III rating (Three-Phase Distribution, single-phase commercial lighting). “Test leads should be certified to a category and voltage as high as or higher than the meter,” he offers. “When it comes to your personal protection, don’t let the test leads be the weakest link.”

Access to reliable servicing and safety information is another essential. Rayner notes that with Toyota’s TechStream diagnostic scan tool, shops also have built-in access to Toyota service information. Other automakers also make information available directly from their Web sites. Alternately, subscribing to service information providers such as Identifix, Mitchell 1 or ALLDATA can ensure a reliable source for HEV-related

Toyota’s TechStream provides shops with real-time diagnostic functionality and service information access for all of the automakers’ models, including HEV vehicles.
Photo Credit: Toyota

information. Quality experience-based information can also be accessed from ethics-driven social networking groups such as the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the International Automotive Techinicians’ Network (iATN).

In addition to information providers and social networking groups, the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) – www.NASTF.org – is another source for information, as well as a conduit for resolving service information gaps. “All OEMs that make hybrids also make their service information available in the same way they make other model information available. To date, we have not had any service information requests for HEVs,” says Mary Hutchinson, NASTF’s administrator. Given the relative newness of HEVs, shops that nurture a good relationship with NASTF can help themselves, the industry and consumers shorten learning and repair curves.

Tools and information aside, acquiring sound training may well be the most crucial area a shop needs to decide. The costs might not exceed that for tools, but relevant training avoids time losses and optimizes revenues. Collision and mechanical shops can source training directly from automakers, Tier 1 suppliers, and aftermarket organizations.

The University of Toyota provides training for Toyota and Lexus dealership technicians, as well as independent technicians who are sponsored by a dealership. GM, Ford, Honda, Mercedes and others also provide training for dealership technicians and are exploring means to accommodate independent technicians, given that their initial model warranty periods are approaching completion.

Training can also be acquired from aftermarket organizations. The Inter-Industry Congress on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR), for example, provides collision shop technicians with training that will enable safe and effective bodywork and paint repairs. The Automotive Career Development Center offers a number of in-depth hybrid servicing courses, ranging from the basic four-day “Up Your Voltage” class that features hands-on experiences over a wide range of HEVs, as well as more specialized hybrid servicing classes. CARQUEST Technical Institute also provides hybrid instructor-led training courses, and recently announced a new hybrid e-course for professional technicians, which introduces HEV concepts, related technologies, an explanation of specific tools needed, and demographic information pertaining to the consumers who purchase HEVs. ASA often provides hybrid training during its trade shows, the International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE) and the Congress of Automotive Repair and Service (CARS) and regional events.

Timing the Market
Although hybrids have been around for a decade, only recently have they achieved cumulative sales to become a serious servicing consideration by independent shops. Like any innovation, there is a right time to adopt HEV service and repair en masse into a shop’s business menu. There are always some who will jump on a trend early, preferring to be on the leading edge, even if they bleed a little as the market and consumers catch up. They just want to be there.

Some will be late adopters, realizing the need to change later than most, conceding market share to those who seized the opportunity earlier and now are facing the challenge of making up lost ground. Their challenge will be having to learn what their peers already have, compounded by the extra challenge of trying to draw consumers who may already have begun a relationship with another shop.

For most shops, however, the timely preparation for and integration of HEV servicing is somewhere between the early and late adopters. Establishing a meaningful presence, as with other innovations that impacted the independent automotive industry, will require an understanding of your local market; proactively investing in the training, tools and access to necessary information ahead of time; and an intrinsic gut feeling that now is the time to pull the trigger. It’s like being Goldilocks.

Do some market analysis. How many HEVs are there in your area? Are there city or other fleets needing competent service locations? Who’s servicing them? What weekly HEV car count do you need to justify the investment needed to incorporate HEV service, and position yourself as the “go-to” HEV repair shop in your market?

A ballpark analysis will give you a general indication of the state of your market. Then, if you’re pleasantly surprised, you may want to do a more in-depth analysis. Perhaps your market has sufficient HEV repair shops now; if not, conduct a ballpark analysis in another year or two. Just remember that while you may not want to be on the leading and bleeding edge, you also don’t want to be way behind the opportunity curve either. Like an automaker, your shop will have to be ready before HEV customers show up, so you may want to look closely now at your budget and scheduling options for required training and retooling.

“The automotive aftermarket is one of the few industries where we know what we’re going to have to service five to seven years in advance,” says Frank Ordonez, president of Delphi Product & Service Solutions. The growing electrification of vehicles is a trend that is providing ample lead-time for independent shops to prepare. It is a unique opportunity not to be wasted.

Bob Chabot Bob Chabot is an automotive writer based in Bedford, Texas.
He may be reached at bobchabot2004@yahoo.com.


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