These days, hybrid gas-electric vehicles make up just a tiny fraction of total car and truck sales. But that’s expected to change. With higher gas prices…
demand for hybrids is
going up. And car companies are stepping up their hybrid production. But there’s a shortage of people who know how to fix hybrids. Rebecca Williams reports some mechanics are getting a crash course in hybrids:
These days, hybrid gas-electric vehicles make up just a tiny fraction
of total car and truck sales. But that’s expected to change.
With higher gas prices… demand for hybrids is going up.
And car companies are stepping up their hybrid production. But there’s
a shortage of people who know how to fix hybrids. Rebecca Williams
reports some mechanics are getting a crash course in hybrids:
Mike Beukema’s been a mechanic for more than 18 years. So he’s seen
cars change a lot. But opening the hood of a hybrid car… that pretty
much changed his life:
“This car just fascinates me altogether so that was the perfect fit.
When it came out, I says this is what I want to be all about!”
He loves the technology. He loves that every time you hit the brakes
you recharge the car’s battery. He loves all the little computers that
tell him exactly what needs fixing.
But there’s one thing that took some getting used to:
“The whole issue of safety was freaky at first because you almost
didn’t dare work on them because they were letting you know exactly how
dangerous it was.”
It’s dangerous because you can get zapped by the high voltage battery.
“These have circuit fuses in ’em at 15 amps – there’s plenty of power
there. Not something you want to mess with.”
You can actually get electrocuted.
Mike Beukema’s got experience with hybrids. He worked at Toyota when
the first generation Priuses came out.
Beukema says the high voltage batteries are pretty intimidating for the
professionals, let alone backyard mechanics. And to really know what’s
wrong with a hybrid system, there’s a big thick manual you have to
read. And c’mon, who wants to read the manual?
Beukema says all this means working on hybrids is a pretty big shift
for mechanics. He says at this point most people who know how to fix
hybrids work at dealerships. There aren’t a whole lot of independent
shops that can fix them. That could be a problem if you like to shop
around to save money on car repair. Or if you break down in the
middle of nowhere.
That’s why, here and there, hybrid classes for independent mechanics
are popping up.
Kurtis LaHaie teaches auto tech classes at Macomb Community College in
Michigan. He recently started hybrid classes here. Today, he’s got a
room full of high school auto tech teachers.
He’s holding their attention… even after lunch.
“Too many volts, too many amps, you’re being cooked, literally inside.”
Then he pulls out the face shield and the big orange gloves.
“Now, as a technician, we’re going to need some new tools. These are
lineman’s gloves – people up on telephone poles? That’s what they wear.
That’s what we’re going to wear, same thing.”
LaHaie says electricity can get through even a tiny pinhole in the
gloves… so you have to be careful.
There’s also a big shepherd’s hook you’re supposed to have on hand.
Just in case you have to save your buddy from being electrocuted by a
Joe Hart had his eye on that shepherd’s hook. It’s not the kind of
thing that helps sell a guy on hybrids:
“I’m an internal combustion guy, a technician, but you’ve gotta embrace
change and you’ve gotta accept the fact that we’re going to move from
an oil society at some point and I want to be there when it happens, I
want to be ahead of the game rather than trying to catch up.”
Hart might not have much of a choice.
Instructor Kurtis LaHaie says even new internal combustion cars are
getting more complicated. Let alone hybrids:
“If you don’t keep up, you’re going to fall by the wayside. The old
backyard mechanics, they’re very hard to maintain these cars, they’re
very sophisticated. This is just the next level for them to get into.
There’s room for everybody but I think the guys who take the lead in
this, especially now, will take the lead in the future and will do very
(Sound of grandfather clock chiming)
Mechanic Mike Beukema is hoping that’s true. After a long career at a
dealership, he’s just opened his own shop specializing in hybrids.
Right now, it’s a little lonely for him.
“I’m the service writer, the person that answers the phone, the person
that fixes your car, and person that collects your money – so I am, I
guess, everything here right now.”
Beukema says with any luck, that won’t last too long. He sees his shop
getting big enough that he can quit fixing cars himself. His dream is
to hire guys fresh out of trade school and train them to be experts on
hybrids and other cars of the future.
For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.