Hybrid proliferation builds a business case for independent shop owners

Hybrid proliferation builds a business case for independent shop owners by Michael Anderson placed Nov 29th, 2007

Las Vegas – As hybrid vehicle registrations continue to swell, so does opportunity for the aftermarket to service them.  Craig Van Batenburg, owner of Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), a hybrid-service training organization, emphasized that during a seminar at the Automotive Aftermarket Product Expo (AAPEX) on Nov. 1.

During the seminar titled, “Servicing Hybrid Vehicles: Get er Done,” Van Batenburg said there are more than 1.6 million hybrids in the world, and 1 million of those are registered in the United States, a far cry from the 23 hybrids that were sold in the United States in 1999.

“That’s enough now to build a business case,” he said, adding that shops need to actively market themselves as hybrid specialists and pursue those customers.”

Hybrid owners are highly intelligent and support “green” initiatives, Van Batenburg said.  Shop owners must create a space they feel comfortable in and be able to speak their “green language,” catering to their environmental concerns and way of life.

When the Toyota Prius hybrids went on sale in 2003, sales soared to nearly 380,000 units, Van Batenburg said, adding that the Prius accounts for 60 percent of the hybrids on U.S. roads today.  Honda also has a large number of hybrids on the roads as well, he said, adding that General Motors has joined the party with their new hybrid Tahoe and Yukon SUVs that are capable of towing 10,000 pounds.

Since most hybrids operate with a battery pack and a regular gasoline engine, opportunity lies in performing preventive maintenance (i.e. oil changes and fluid flushes), brakes, and battery pack service, Van Batenburg said.

The expensive battery packs, typically around 300 volts, present a great opportunity for the aftermarket to rebuild them, he said.  For example, on the first-generation Prius, people are paying up to $5,000 for a new battery pack.

Worcester, Mass.-based ACDC has a hybrid certification organization for technicians, Van Battenberg said.  “Part of what we teach you is how to rebuild battery packs.”

Special training, tools, and precautions must be taken when working on hybrids, Van Batenburg said.  “You need training, equipment, and repair information,” he said.  “Without those, you’re out of business.”

Aftermarket scan tools do not work on hybrid vehicles, Van Batenburg said.  “Every single scan tool has no communication or bad data.  You can no longer compete with the dealership if you don’t have the factory scan tool.”

The best one to use, he said, is the Bosch/Vetronix MasterTech scan tool, which covers all years for Toyota/Lexus and Honda vehicles, up to 2003; for 2004 Hondas and newer, a laptop-based system from Teradyne is needed; Ford requires a laptop-based IDS system; and GM requires the TechII, he added.

Special volt meters should also be purchased for hybrids, Van Batenburg said.  “If you use an old-fashioned meter, it could blow up in your face.”  Fluke makes a great one for hybrids, he added.

In addition to OE scan tools, technicians must wear high-voltage gloves when working on hybrids, he said, noting that the voltage running through those cars is lethal.  A technician must know that the bright blue wires indicate that they carry 36 volts and bright orange ones carry a lethal dosage.  Technicians should not wear any metal jewelry when working on hybrids, he added.

Since most of the vehicles use regenerative braking–a feature that harnesses energy from the brakes and uses it to recharge the battery pack–there can be some peculiarities when servicing the brake system, Van Batenburg said.

The Ford Escape, for example, has a brake service mode, he said, in which the ABS system automatically powers itself up and activates the pistons in the brake calipers.  If a technician doesn’t know this, it could pinch his or her fingers, he said.