Gearing up for hybrids

Car owners turn to mechanics for tuneups

Back in the day, software engineer Marc Epard didn’t mind getting under the hood.

In the 1970s, that meant rolling up his sleeves and changing the oil in his Datsun B210. Or rewiring the sound system by adding an Alpine stereo and four two-way speakers.

As the ’80s rolled into the ’90s, Epard found himself changing out brake pads and fluids on his Porsche Carrera — necessary work for someone speeding onto racing tracks across the country.

But these days, as he heads Netopia’s software operations in Lawrence as senior principal engineer, Epard is putting the brakes on his penchant for auto maintenance and technical tinkering.

Having a hybrid will do that.

“I don’t have any desire to get in there,” said Epard, who owns a 2004 Toyota Prius. “I’ve done it with cars in the past, but not this one. It already has enough gadgets and technology in there that I can’t think of anything I’d do.”

With hybrids gaining popularity, consumers such as Epard increasingly are taking a hands-off approach to their auto maintenance — an indifference that’s opening up work for the mechanics they hire to keep their electric/gasoline-powered wheels running.

And while the number of hybrid vehicles in Lawrence remains small — Crown Toyota services only about three dozen hybrids in its shop, even fewer pull into independent garages — mechanics are counting on plenty more in the years ahead.

Automakers are scrambling to bring more hybrids to market, leaving mechanics with plenty of motivation to accelerate training, upgrade equipment and roll with the latest innovations in the business.

Pat Slimmer, owner of Slimmer’s Automotive, 2030 E. 23rd, plans to enroll in a training program this year for servicing hybrids. He hasn’t had to buy any new equipment yet, but he’s sure that new software will be needed for diagnostics and other services.

The Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle contains numerous high-voltage circuits that are capable of producing more than 288 volts. If mechanical repairs are needed or if the high-voltage battery needs to be removed, Toyota recommends having a master technician perform the service. Josh Baldwin, Prius certified automotive service technician, looks under the hood of a Prius at Crown Toyota. Certain areas of the Prius require the use of rubber gloves by technicians when working around some of the electrical parts of the vehicle.

He also wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the smaller independent garages in town fall behind, as hybrids gain market share.

“You’re always dealing with new stuff, and new systems and new technologies,” Slimmer said. “If you can’t adapt to change, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Accelerating market share

Hybrids have come a long way from their early days, when the draw of electric motors turned on only a handful of environmentalists and others intrigued by the emerging technology.

The market is changing.

J.D. Power and Associates expects 200,000 hybrids to be sold this year in the United States, or about 1.2 percent of the U.S. market. The totals would be up from 88,000 vehicles, or 0.5 percent of the market, sold in 2004.

Consumers purchasing a new hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle by the end of 2005 are eligible for a federal “Clean Fuel” vehicle tax deduction of up to $2,000. The incentive will be reduced to $500 in 2006. Vehicles purchased after 2006 will not be eligible for a deduction under current legislation.

Automakers are speeding up plans for more hybrids. Ford, which introduced the first hybrid sport utility vehicle last year, a new version of the Escape, announced last month that it would add four more hybrid vehicles during the next three years.

Toyota and Honda — the sector’s two dominant brands — are adding to their lineups, and General Motors has a truck. Nissan is working on an Altima hybrid for next year.

J.D. Power expects hybrid sales to hit 535,000 in the United States by 2011, accounting for about 3 percent of the market.

And, at least for now, most of those buyers are keeping their maintenance business close to the sales floor.

Larry Whitson, service operations director at Jack Ellena Honda in Lawrence, said that more than 90 percent of the Insights and Civic hybrids bought at the dealership were brought into the company garage for service. The total is up from the 80 percent or so for other new cars.

Part of the reason: price. New hybrids typically command a price $3,000 to $4,000 higher than a conventional model, leading to buyers who may be more apt to invest in necessary car care.

“The hybrid customer seems to be very conscientious about maintenance, and making sure the vehicle remains in tip-top shape,” Whitson said.

Another factor: Knowledge. Hybrids have been on the road only for a few years, leaving many mechanics with little first-hand experience with the technical systems that provide electric power.

Careful with those wires

Crown Toyota, in fact, has only one technician certified to care for hybrids — and he rarely sees the vehicles, other than for relatively routine oil changes and wheel rotations.

When Josh Baldwin does pop the hood, though, he doesn’t take any chances: The technician with seven years’ experience dons rubber gloves and posts warning signs all around the vehicle.

“A hybrid is one of the few cars that actually could kill you if you do something wrong,” said Ken Johnson, the dealer’s assistant service manager. “The (electric) motor runs at about 300 volts — and that could put a pretty good shock into you if you cut into the wrong wire.”

But Slimmer cautions against fearing a hybrid’s technology. Hybrids simply are vehicles powered by smaller gasoline engines, he said, which can get a boost from an electric motor.

During his 28 years as a professional mechanic, he’s seen plenty of advances that professionals and do-it-yourselfers alike have been able to adapt to: antilock brakes, air bag systems, throttles by wire and on and on.

“As long as we have the information and the tools available, we’ll be able to fix them,” he said. “Technology’s always changing.”