Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2007   by Andrew Ross, Publisher and Editor

Thou Shalt Know Green

Every year when the auto show rolls into your town, the consumer is faced with some pretty flashy pieces of metal and plastic. And every year, most of them hop into their old wheels and drive back home.

It is in this environment that the automakers make the most of their once-a-year opportunity to show what they have, what they will have, and what they might have if the relevant design concepts are well received.

It wasn’t that long ago that hybrid technology fell firmly into that last category; in the short run since Honda introduced the Insight in 1999, the interest in the technology has expanded to the point where it is really only the specialty makers that are not offering hybrid power in their vehicle line-ups.

The aftermarket had better sit up and take notice. While it is certainly the case that most of the vehicles offered to this point will never see the inside of a traditional aftermarket garage–as a result of special efforts by the automakers to retain control over those vehicles from cradle to grave as it were–that is all about to change.

Going green is now in the script of virtually every automaker. And, while Honda and Toyota continue to lead the field in terms of penetration into the hybrid segment, even with its currently beleaguered status General Motors has the potential to outstrip other players by a long shot in one fell swoop with the expansion of its hybrid offerings. With more than one in four new vehicles landing on our roads rolling out of GM dealerships, it continues to be a force to be reckoned with. And Ford and Chrysler aren’t that far behind.

Yes, it’s true that it will be a while before people get the hang of the technology, but it is going to be a challenge. Hybrid systems are very different, and in surprising ways. You can’t just weld an electric motor onto a gasoline engine, add a few controllers, and be done with it. The control systems are complex, and the drivetrain is significantly different. The system GM is proffering on its Sierra and Silverado–can you say fleet?–has been jointly developed by GM, BMW, and Daimler Chrysler. And it is more about the transmission than it is about power generation. The two-mode system represents a major advance in the way it integrates electric motors with a fixed-gear transmission. This means more flexibility of packaging and power output and more efficient power usage–most single-mode systems force the electric mode to transmit power 20% less efficiently than in gas-powered mode–plus it incorporates regenerative braking technologies and a bunch of other goodies.

All in what could be your local contractor’s lumber hauler.

Which means it is time now for much of the aftermarket to start becoming more comfortable with hybrid systems and the technologies they employ. It is probably not necessary at this point to be completely able to fix every aspect in the aftermarket–with limited training hours, there are plenty of conventional systems that techs could still stand to be better at diagnosing and repairing–but what some training can alleviate is the fear that could cause an otherwise competent tech to run for the rear of the shop when a hybrid rolls in.

The fact of the matter is that when the domestic automakers roll out a vehicle into the market, it very quickly rolls into the aftermarket, particularly trucks. And if we don’t know how to deal with it, it can just as quickly roll right out again.

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