Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2010   by Nestor Gula

Your Future will be Hybrid

To succeed with hybrid maintenance the key will be ongoing training and a fearless approach to the challenges


The chances are very good that in the near future a customer will drive to your shop with a hybrid car and will ask, “Can you fix it?”

On the surface, hybrid cars look like any other car on the road. We know that there are batteries and an electric motor somewhere beneath the sheet metal; but is that the only difference?

Craig van Batenburg insists, “The hybrid cars are the biggest single change to the automotive industry in the last 100 years.” van Batenburg is the founder and owner of Automotive Career Development Center ( www.auto-careers.org) in Worcester, MA. He has been training technicians to test, service and repair hybrid cars since 2000. He adds, “The most significant thing about hybrid cars is they are ushering in the electric car.”

“Hybrid cars have transformed nearly every component of the vehicle,” he said. “The gas engine shuts off when it comes to a stop sign. This drastically changes the way we test and repair cars. The transmissions now have electronic motors inside. They are running at higher voltage. The brakes might look the same, but the processing on the brakes is now done by computer. Electric power steering is on virtually every hybrid car out there. And it is becoming common on regular cars as well. If you look at suspension, the settings for the toe are different than on regular cars because of rolling resistance. The cooling system has changed as well. If you look at the electric transmission – it has its own radiator to cool it.”

What technological features are most prominent in the hybrid cars is something called mechatronics. This word was originally coined to “describe a mechanical part that needs a sophisticated electrical control to work,” according to van Batenburg. Sometimes known as drive-by-wire — similar to modern aircraft where it is commonly called fly-by-wire — there is no physical linkage between the driver and the motor, steering, brakes or transmission. All controls actuate electronic signals which then in turn control the necessary item.

As to servicing hybrids, van Batenburg said, “If the shop owner or technician is not comfortable with electronics then the new hybrid cars are going to bring on more misery. However, if a shop owner or a technician considers himself very competent in electronics and basic electrical then they are going to love working on hybrids.”

He sees that hybrid cars, and electrical cars will be a large part of the North American market in the future and, “you will have to learn how to work on basic electronics or be relegated to less and less work. Those who love technology and are working to advance their training have found electronic work challenging and they love the stuff and work with it. “

The bane of most electrical work is intermittent problems. “We have a definition of intermittent right on a form that the customer has to sign -if you cannot tell me the work that I have to do, that it happens each and every time, then you have to leave the car for a minimum of one week and give me permission to drive the car as if it was my own,” said van Batenburg. “Once we figure out what’s wrong, we work in not one hour increments but 500 dollar increments before we proceed.”

He said he has encountered some issues in various cars but “not any more or any less intermittent problems than in regular cars.” He added the problems usually are the result of where and how the cars are driven. “Anywhere around the Great Lakes where there is corrosion and road salt -that’s what causes the intermittent problems,” he said. “The environment makes a larger problem -problems are a lot less in dryer climates no corrosive elements on the roads like road salt.”

Common problems when servicing a hybrid vehicle is having the gasoline engine sitting idle for periods of time. The hybrid’s computer will want to shut the engine off to save on fuel. Manufacturers have a work around that one has to be familiar with to keep the engine idling according to van Batenburg.

Technician Randy Salamon at Bram City Auto in Brampton, Ontario said, “The largest challenge in repairing any hybrid in Canada, whether it be a Toyota Prius, Honda Accord or a Ford Explorer is obtaining the proper repair information, whether it be a code explanation or a wiring diagrams, so the complaint can be quickly diagnosed, and repaired properly, in a timely manner.”

Along with this he said, “Another major issue is in obtaining the factory scan tools to begin servicing. Aftermarket scan tool manufactures have also been blocked in the past from this information, so the available info on the tool is limited. Only until recently have the vehicle manufactures started to “open up” and are making this must needed information available for all.”

Training and keeping up with technical developments is crucial said Salamon. “It is advancing so fast. Current hybrids are just the tip of what is to follow. As more models/manufactures are being introduced, I foresee major improvements in all areas. These are amazing machines: Multiple computers multiplexing in real time, this is not new; but now we have aircraft quality relays controlling voltages high enough to kill you in a blink, all working together in sync.”

He added servicing hybrids could cause many embarrassing and potentially fatal incidents for the technician who has no experience. “Nothing is worse than having a hybrid owner come into your shop for a simple service and not having the knowledge to even start the vehicle, or having that vehicle engine start while it is on a hoist with the oil draining; or even worse, having your hand crushed doing a simple brake service on a Ford Escape,” said Salamon. “So yes, some simple basic training on how each model operates is a definite necessity. It’s a concern about the high voltage that you are working with. A person can lift the vehicle incorrectly and cut a line. You have to be careful.”

At Status Auto and Tire in Toronto’s east end, Bob Stathis, said he has worked on several batteries for hybrid cars.

“I’ve been testing the individual cells, and trying to resurrect them from the dead,” he said. “If you are smart enough and qualified enough you can actually get inside these batteries and find individual faults and replace these as opposed to exchanging the whole battery pack.”

Stathis said a general consumer worry about the longevity and reliability of the battery packs is overstated.

“The cost of replacing a battery is a fear that most of the customers of the hybrid cars have. This is not actually the case. Each battery pack from the manufacturer must have an eight-year warranty,” he explained. “We do not have a lot of these vehicles on the road today but equally we do not have an epidemic problem of battery failures.”

He pointed out that hybrid cars have been around for about ten years and there are no reports of battery failures. “The aftermarket industry would pounce on this if there was a problem,” he stated. “There is a huge market in batteries and these guys, Interstate, ACDelco and the others would act.”

He also emphasised a technician must be well trained and briefed on all manner of hybrid cars.

“The technology that Honda uses in its hybrids is not the same that is found in the Toyota hybrid cars,” Stathis explained. “Honda has less electronics and simpler technology as compared to the Toyotas.”

This sentiment is echoed by Salamon. “There are major differences in how each manufacturer converts that generated energy into stored energy, than back too usable energy to power the electric motors and accessories,” he said. “One could write a novel on how each operates. There is a mountain of information on the Internet these days.”

SSGM

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“If the shop owner or technician is not comfortable with electronics then the new hybrid cars are going to bring on more misery.”

Craig van Batenburg


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