In light of unstable fuel costs, consumers are once again returning to
basic transportation by trading in their old gas-guzzling SUVs for more
economical vehicles, especially those powered by hybrid electric
vehicle (HEV) technology. This was especially evident in the
government's Cash For Clunkers program, which had to be extended due to
the surprisingly swift consumer response to the program.
Hybrid vehicles did make the top 10 list of vehicles purchased during
the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS). On the one hand, the current
popularity of hybrid technology seems to offer an unbounded service
opportunity for independent automotive service providers. On the other
hand, a currently limited, 1-million HEV population might be operating
under an eight-year, 80,000-mile manufacturer’s “49-state” warranty or
an extended warranty in California.
Right now, the service opportunities lie mainly in the future, as
hybrids move out of warranty and into the independent service bays. In
either case, it’s entirely realistic to expect hybrids to become a
growing part of the automotive service market. So let’s take a brief
look at what hybrid technology is all about and what effect it might
have on the independent service market.
Decade of Dual Power
The first commercially produced hybrid car to hit the road was the
Honda Insight back in 2000, followed by the Toyota Prius for model year
2001. But both of these cars were very limited production vehicles. The
Honda Insight was discontinued in 2007, replaced by a hybrid version of
the Civic. The Prius lives on, and continues as the most numerous and
popular hybrid on the road today.
Most major auto manufacturers have some type of hybrid design in the
various stages of planning, manufacturing or marketing. Although hybrid
designs have been on the market for about 10 years, only recently have
the “global warming” movement and rising oil prices focused the
nation’s attention on the hybrid’s high fuel economy and low greenhouse
gas exhaust emissions. In fact, driving a hybrid has become as much of
an environmental status symbol as it has a matter of thrift.
When discussing hybrids, it’s important to remember that hybrid
technology is a work in progress and that there’s no such thing as a
“generic” hybrid design. Hybrids use three fundamentally different
powertrain arrangements series, parallel and series-parallel to
transmit mechanical and electrical torque to the front wheels and to
recharge the vehicle’s main batteries.
Battery technology is also progressing from nickel metal hydride
(Ni-MH) to lithium ion-based designs, which means that an HEV’s storage
capacity will markedly increase, as will the service life and the
projected cost of the batteries. Next, remember that the terms,
“engine” and “motor” are not interchangeable in hybrid or any other
alternative motive power technology.
An internal combustion engine (ICE) develops rotating torque by
converting one form of energy (gasoline) into another form of energy
(heat), which is converted into mechanical energy that rotates the
engine’s crankshaft. The electric motor (EM), on the other hand,
develops rotating torque by directly converting electricity into a
magnetic force that rotates the motor’s armature shaft. Although many
hybrids use a conventional 12-volt starter motor and ring gear as a
backup, the hybrid’s electric drive motor normally serves as a silent
starter motor for the gasoline engine.
Last, it’s important to understand that power management in a hybrid or
other alternative motive power technologies is accomplished by using a
complex computer system to monitor and coordinate all vehicle
functions. Modern hybrids use the latest computer networking,
electrical multiplexing and drive-by-wire technologies to operate
practically all systems and subsystems and to achieve optimum fuel
economy and exhaust emissions.
Modern hybrids also use regenerative braking to recharge the batteries
during deceleration. Regenerative braking, in most cases, conserves
gasoline by transforming the kinetic energy of the vehicle into
electrical energy that can be used not only to slow the vehicle, but
also to recharge the vehicle’s batteries. In most cases, the hydraulic
service brakes operate only under severe braking conditions or to
merely slow or stop the vehicle at low vehicle speeds.
Last, a hybrid’s gasoline engine runs only when the batteries need
charging or when additional power is required for climbing hills or
passing other vehicles. This feature not only saves gasoline, but saves
wear and tear on the engine itself.
When you add up all the hybrids that are on the road today, they total
about 1 million vehicles which is less than 1% of the vehicle
population. Hybrids are still a very small drop in a very large bucket.
Within five years, however, these numbers will change dramatically.
Hybrids are expected to account for 20% to 25% of all new car and light
truck sales by 2013. That means a growing aftermarket for replacement
Providing Hybrid Service
Hybrid service can be broken into three categories: routine
maintenance, engine service and transaxle/battery service. Routine
maintenance includes the lubrication, filter and inspection services
that all conventional vehicles require. The only difference is that
hybrid vehicles require less routine maintenance than normal because:
1) the gasoline engine runs only when required; and 2) the conventional
hydraulic service brakes operate only during emergency situations or at
very low vehicle speeds.
The spark plug replacement interval for the iridium-tipped spark plugs
on a 2006 Toyota Prius, for example, is 120,000 miles versus a
100,000-mile interval for conventional platforms.
Taxi drivers using the Toyota Prius vehicles in metro taxi service are
reporting a brake friction life in excess of 100,000 miles. Battery
life is also estimated to average about 10 years, so it’s not quite
accurate to say that there’s a pent-up demand awaiting the shop that
gears up for routine hybrid maintenance.
The gasoline engine itself falls under EPA requirements for the tooling
and information needed to diagnose and repair emissions-related
failures. Since the engine is completely computer-controlled,
technicians must familiarize themselves with correct service procedures
including “locking” the vehicle to prevent the engine from attempting
to start automatically during a routine service such as an oil change.
In addition, technicians must understand that hybrid vehicles require
special service and repair procedures.
The Prius’s 12-volt absorbed glass mat (AGM) auxiliary battery for
operating accessories, for example, must be recharged using a special
Toyota battery charger or a low-amperage equivalent.
Last, attention must be paid to vehicle-specific details when
performing routine maintenance on hybrid vehicles. Honda Insights, for
example, incorporate aluminum bodies held together by special
corrosion-resistant bolts. Some hybrids use a letter mark on the end of
the spark plug electrode to index the spark plug gaps to the cylinder’s
combustion chambers. Similarly, all hybrid vehicles use special
low-rolling resistance tires. Using generic substitutes will reduce
fuel economy, which, in most cases, will be immediately noticed by a
Any service or repair involving the high-voltage (HV) system, which
includes the transaxle, electric generator, drive motors, constant
variable speed transaxles and the high-voltage batteries, requires
special technical training and service safety precautions. The
generator/motor assemblies and constant variable speed transaxles are
currently supplied only as new, complete assemblies from the hybrid
manufacturers. Very few major components in the hybrid design lend
themselves to in-house servicing or rebuilding.
When servicing hybrids, keep in mind that contact with any voltage
potential of 60 volts or more can be fatal. Generator voltages can
range as high as 500 volts and battery voltages can range as high as
300 volts. To warn technicians of the danger, all high-voltage wiring
is colored orange. Special high-voltage electrical test and safety
equipment like high-voltage insulating gloves are required for
servicing high-voltage battery systems.
With that said, any independent shop must evaluate the potential costs
and profits of servicing hybrid vehicles. Routine maintenance and
engine service, of course, requires no appreciable amount of special
equipment. Generator/motor, transaxle and battery service, on the other
hand, requires vehicle-specific training and some special tooling like
high-voltage insulated gloves and high-voltage electrical test
In-depth service might also require an OE database like Toyota’s new
TechStream information system. This system costs about $8,000 for a
complete OE diagnostic hardware and data access package, but is
necessary to diagnose the on-board electronics and access the latest
But technology keeps moving on. One European manufacturer is looking at
adapting some hybrid features into its conventional vehicle platforms
by automatically shutting off the engine when the vehicle is at rest.
At future prices of gasoline, this and other hybrid-style fuel-saving
features may well point the way to major changes in the way the
automotive aftermarket provides service and parts to the motoring