Understanding Electric, Hybrid Cars: What Your Mechanic Has to Learn in Order to Work on Your Car

When you think of hybrids and electric vehicles, the first thing to come to mind is probably not the county of Yorkshire. Unless, of course, you live in Yorkshire. But a small Yorskshire village is where I recently spent two days learning exactly how mechanics used to the well understood foibles of the internal combustion engine are being taught the principles of electric vehicle and hybrid maintenance.

The course was two days, and costs £450; a not insignificant investment of both time and money for any mechanic — especially ones who own and operate their own small businesses. Yet many ignore training opportunities like this, deciding investing time and money on what they perceive to be a niche technology simply doesn’t make business sense.

After all, they argue, what’s to learn? Or so they think…

Back in the late 90s, when manufacturers pioneered the introduction of hybrid and electric cars, some dealerships prepared their mechanics for the sudden appearance of these vehicles where they’d suddenly be dealing with not a maximum voltage of around 14 volts but instead one of around 650 volts. Not only that, but vehicles where ‘off’ is not really off rather a state of not being ready to drive. Cars where other parts of the car may still be live and dangerous when the key is out of the ignition, and the vehicle apparently dormant.

The Nissan Altra was the Leaf’s more staid older brother. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, by user Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight were the first of many, along with famous first-generation plug-in electric cars like the GM EV1, Nissan Altra EV and Toyota RAV4 EV. Back then, the only dealers who really needed to worry about training were ones which sold the cars themselves. And because they were so niche, other dealerships could pretend these hybrid and electric vehicles didn’t exist.

Today, most automakers offer some form of vehicle with electricity providing some, or all, of it’s motive power. From cars like the all-electric BMW i3 and Volkswagen eGolf, to hybrids like the venerable Toyota Prius through to Honda’s IMA petrol-electric drivetrain and plug-in range-extended vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, they’re all at it in one way or another. But as it stands, many of these vehicles have never seen the inside of an independent garage. Their inherent complexity and the dangers of voiding the warranty have kept many of them within the plush walled gardens of dealer workshops.

But as these cars age out into the second hand market, their new owners are unlikely to be quite so interested in paying £120 per hour labour rates for their £2000 car.

Unfortunately there’s a genuine aversion to dealing with hybrids and electric cars in the garage trade. Back when they were new they made up such a small percentage of the new vehicle list that many garages made an active decision to look away. Declining such a small amount of business made reasonable financial sense. Combined world sales for the first generation Toyota Prius and Honda Insight were less than 150,000 cars. Spread across multiple continents, they were such an insignificant number that training as a mechanic to work on a car you might never, ever see seemed pointless.

Even now, looking at the figures, as a garage owner you could reasonably turn around and say that it’s not worth it – between 2006-2014 a mere 170,000 hybrids were registered in the UK (compared to over 2 million new cars registered here in 2013 alone). And perhaps it’s a fair choice. My brief, unscientific survey of independent garages indicated a few that were ‘happy to work on’ hybrids to some extent or other; some of whom had accredited training, some did not; and more significantly many garages who suggested that, for hybrids, I was much better going to the local main dealer.

But as fuel economy and pollution restrictions become ever more stringent, hybrid drivetrains are going to creep further and further until they likely become the de facto standard for all those ‘conventionally fuelled vehicles’. Getting in early, for some local garages, may mean becoming the ‘local garage’ for hybrids, a situation which can only serve to improve their business as more and more people consider hybrid and electric vehicles.

2005 Prius

Our 2005 Toyota Prius hybrid is well outside the time when dealers should be mollycoddling it

When I purchased my 2005 Toyota Prius, word of mouth informed me, very clearly, where not to get it serviced. And similarly, a quick scan of social media and the web told where, locally, other people were going with their Prii. Unfortunately, it’s meant that I have to abandon a relationship I’ve built up with a garage that I trust, because they’re not accredited (and wisely, also not willing) to work on hybrids.

That all important ‘name’ for both doing something and being good at it are things that the growth of social media has made it much easier for businesses to capitalise on. Getting in early, and doing it well, are the keys. And garages that do that are likely to find themselves quietly stealing the long-standing customers of other garages.

Given that some of the garages seemed to be trying to ‘get by’ without training, when I sat down with Ian and Miles from ICT Workshop Solutions one of the first questions on my mind was what was their experience of teaching hybrid safety. A common issue they’ve encountered is that untrained mechanics will work in close proximity to high voltage electronics without having safely discharged the system and with little understanding of how the hybrid system in the car works. Often an attitude of  ‘if I don’t touch it, it won’t hurt me’ wins out. This was illustrated with the tale of a mechanic who, believing a Toyota Prius was off because it wasn’t running, commenced draining the oil. Of course, as soon as the motive power battery was depleted, the engine automatically restarted; only now it did so without much oil in it. Obviously then there was a period of panic as they attempted to get the poor Prius lowered from it’s elevated position on a lift… and you can only ponder how much damage was done to the delicate internals of the Prius’ internal combustion engine.

Working on High Voltage System in the Auris at ICT Workshop Solutions

Working on High Voltage System in any electric or electrified vehicle is an experience that requires dexterity in thick insulating gloves.

Perhaps because most manufacturers are reticent about releasing the workshop manuals for their cars, many of these mechanics are long used to winging it; using their experience on other vehicles to identify and repair faults; but it’s exactly these skills that may lead them in to trouble. Simply popping off a cover to see what’s underneath may lead them in to high voltage areas, and with some garages opting to work blind, or simply resetting the error code without repairing the fault, hybrid owners and the mechanics working on them are in a potential minefield.

Even with experience, and the manufacturer’s instructions, Miles recounted removing a board and cheerfully handling it, then later discovering that a component on that board was acting as a capacitor, storing nearly 200volts. Quite enough to deliver a nasty shock (thankfully, one that was avoided). And so it is that when teaching, they choose to start from basic principles.

Something of a necessity it turns out, because whilst my compatriot was definately a petrol head, his last experience of electric vehicles prior to the course? Well, when I asked him, he grinned and said “Remote control cars”. Whilst a friend of his owned a hybrid, he’d never been called on to get his hands grubby under the bonnet.

Trainers clearly have a steep hill to climb. Keeping up with the developments in hybrid and electric vehicles is, it turns out, a full time job, as we at Transport Evolved are well aware. Bringing someone up to speed with the many varieties of car they may encounter, and how each of the different manufacturer’s systems work (even just at their most basic level) was the first job and actually a massive one. Take a moment to think about it; petrol and diesel cars that have a fair amount of uniformity in the way they function. Generally your conventionally engined cars goes: Engine (Atkinson cycle or Diesel cycle) drives a gearbox which usually drives the front wheels. If you’re really going wild you might put the engine in the middle of the car and drive the rear wheels. But the essential layout of components is pretty predictable.

Hybrids are a little different.

Let's start from the Basics - Mechanics have to learn how each system works. Courtesy ICT Workshop Solutions

Let’s start from the Basics – Mechanics have to learn how each system works. Courtesy ICT Workshop Solutions

Each manufacturer’s system is markedly different and the component locations vary dramatically. Until you know how to identify that a car is a hybrid, and where the bits of it might be lurking, you don’t want to go waving your hands in there.

Then it’s practicalities; everything has to be covered carefully, again starting from first principles. How to check high voltage gloves are safe to use, and how to identify that they’re suitable for the job. How to identify high voltage cables on a vehicle. Things that have to become second nature if you’re to safely deal with high voltage kit day in day out. Many garages don’t realise this, but there’s a legal requirement for them to provide appropriate training to deal with high-voltage electricity, and without training mechanics are likely to make schoolboy (or girl) errors which may even get them killed.

In two days we crammed in a lot of theory and some practical assessments, including the all important removing and replacing of a high voltage component. And yes, the car did run after I’d done that. We checked.

And here's the proof, I'm arm deep in the hybrid pack of an Auris.

And here’s the proof, I’m arm deep in the hybrid pack of a Toyota Auris.

Outside of that, there was a lot of discussion of the coming reality, which is that hybrids are going to rapidly become the standard for conventionally fuelled vehicles. And perhaps that’s what will be the final factor that drives independent garages ask their mechanics to obtain this kind of accreditation. Not the danger of their lack of knowledge. Not interest in the technology. But instead, good old fashioned money. As their customers demand competence and knowledge of the cars, and family businesses watch their clients being slowly siphoned by upstart neigbours who do handle hybrids, they’ll either adapt or die. Even the most obstinate of garages is going to have to move forward or face an ever dwindling pool of cars to repair. You can only have so many classic car garages!

The one final component of the training was experiential. With many of these guys having never encountered either a hybrids or an EV, allowing a them to experience both is a also a vital component of the process. It’s two parts learning and one part sales pitch. This is what it should feel like, this is how they behave… oh, and look at them, they’re nice to drive, quiet, fun… Try it, you might like it! He didn’t leave an EV convert, it’s a long road for the defiant petrol head to walk from lover of the four-banger to EV advocate, but he certainly was much more enthusiastic about EVs and hybrids when he left than when he arrived.

But perhaps more importantly, at the end of the day your hybrid (or EV) was safe in his hands.

ICT Workshop Solutions invited Transport Evolved to take part in their 2-day Hybrid training course, and provided complementary food and training in order for us to bring you this first-person report. 


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