WORCHESTER, Mass.—Craig Van Batenburg is all charged up about hybrids—and he thinks that operators of independent repair shops should be, too.
Why? Because when he pops the hood, the hybrid-vehicle evangelist sees not only an internal combustion engine and electric motor but a revenue-generating machine—income that too many independent shops are ignoring or are afraid of servicing.
Mr. Van Batenburg's Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC) in Worcester, Mass., has investigated, used—and in a few cases, abused—his own fleet of Ford, Honda and Toyota hybrids in the name of research. That's literally dozens of hybrids provided as guinea pigs to teach technicians how to maintain and repair them. Before founding ACDC in 1998 and becoming “Mr. Hybrid,” Mr. Van Batenburg (CMAT, L1, AAM) spent 26 years as a technician and shop owner, much of that time specializing in Hondas.
And it happened to be American Honda Motor Co. Inc. in late 1999 that was first out of the gate with a hybrid for American highways with its Insight. With a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rating of up to 61 miles per gallon, the two-seat Insight also topped a string of fuel economy lists. Toyota Motor Corp., which actually came out with the world's first commercial hybrid in Japan, brought the Prius to the U.S. a year later.
The hybrid trickle has become a steady flow in recent years since, as exemplified by hybridized versions of such vehicles as the Toyota Highlander and Camry, Ford Escape and its platform cousin the Mazda Tribute, the Lexus RX and LS, Chevrolet Malibu and General Motors Corp.'s full-size SUVs. Just around the corner are Ford's Fusion hybrid, Honda's Insight (returning after a three-year hiatus), a hybrid Chevy Silverado and Toyota's third-generation Prius.
Mr. Van Batenburg classifies hybrids sold today as strong (Toyota, Ford, Nissan and the GM two-mode system, which integrates two electric motors and extra ratios in the automatic transmission to provide larger vehicles a city/economy mode and a highway cruising mode); Medium Assist (Honda); and Micro Little Assist (Saturn).
Should an independent repair shop be resigned to losing a loyal customer to a car dealership if that customer buys, for example, a Ford Fusion hybrid this spring because the sedan is rated at 41 mpg in the city, carries a base MSRP of $27,995 and qualifies for a $3,400 federal tax credit?
“Mr. Hybrid” thinks that's silly.
At last fall's Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo in Las Vegas, Mr. Van Batenburg told his rapt audience there are 1.4 million hybrids in use in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of those vehicles are out of warranty.
Yet, while they can be different—technicians may have to figure out how to open the doors and learn where the sensors are before they can even drive the vehicle—hybrids are straightforward in other ways.
“Guys, an electric motor is an electric motor,” Mr. Van Batenburg said, adding that what techs learn working on hybrids will transfer to cars primarily powered by electricity, like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt due out in the fall of 2010.
Of course, there's the major gotcha of high voltage, making training, safety equipment and the correct tools critical. According to Mr. Van Batenburg, just 0.5 amperes at 50 volts can be lethal and a medium hybrid puts out at least 144 volts and 100 amps.
Hybrid safety hazards, he said, include the high-voltage (HV) battery, orange HV cables and HV capacitors. All work must be done in a safe, dry location using Class 0 HV safety gloves rated for 1,000 volts.
Mr. Van Batenburg's training session was full of practical nuggets for technicians such as procedures for shutting down the HV power if necessary; scan tools (he recommends factory models); the strengths and weaknesses of certain hybrid systems; and how to obtain training.
ACDC offers five-day courses limited to 16 technicians (for more information visit www.fix¬hybrid.com). The center also conducts long-term tests designed to determine whether certain expensive procedures and component replacement sometimes called for by the hybrid vehicle's manufacturer are really necessary.
Want to tackle hybrids?
Mr. Van Batenburg estimates shop owners are looking at an investment of $3,000 for technician training, $100 for safety gloves, $300 to $600 for a CAT III digital volt-ohm meter and $1,000 to $3,000 for a CAT III scope.
“Craig's awesome. We need more people like him,” said Rick Ramstrom, owner of Ranstrom's Service Center in Worcester. “Expertise with these cars is not self-taught and training is extremely important.”
Mr. Ranstrom has been targeting hybrid owners in print, e-mail and word-of-mouth marketing ever since his employee Steve Ferron, a master technician, wanted new challenges and took ACDC's course. Ranstrom's now has two technicians qualified to work on hybrids at the six-bay shop.
Mr. Ranstrom cautioned shop owners, however, not to expect miracles when it comes to the bottom line. He said demand for hybrids fluctuates, peaking when gasoline was $4 a gallon. “Now it's gone the other way and business is light.”