Future Cars In the Garage 4 - Burgeoning Technology Vehicles

Newer-technology vehicles such as battery electrics and hydrogen fuel cells are where much of the focus in the industry is going now. With plug-ins like the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan LEAF, and others coming to mass market in the next year, workers will need to be trained to work on these cars.
esb sundancer
ESB Sundancer, October, 1973

by Aaron Turpen

Future Car Repair - Burgeoning Technology Vehicles

Newer-technology vehicles such as battery electrics (and most plug-ins), hydrogen fuel cells, and similar power trains are where much of the focus in the industry is going now. With plug-ins like the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan LEAF, and others coming to mass market in the next year, training personnel to work around these vehicles is coming to the fore.

Repair and Maintenance Issues

In electric vehicles, including plug-ins and hydrogen fuel cells (HFC), most of the issues will revolve around the power source and vehicle chassis. Standard automotive issues such as brake maintenance and repair, suspension issues, and so forth can be taken care of by existing garages and mechanics.

Power train issues, however, will likely revolve around the power source (batteries, fuel cells, etc). This will require more specialized technical knowledge on the part of the mechanic. Most likely, these issues will be initially handled by warranty requirements and in many cases will be swapped out by the dealership or its authorized (and specially-trained) repair shop.

Batteries are likely to be relatively non-proprietary as time moves forward, with the technology owned by the battery's maker rather than the automaker. So an EV with lithium batteries may have the battery pack technology owned by A123 Systems rather than Fisker Automotive, which could mean that A123 would authorize or warranty the batteries as part of the vehicle's ownership package.

Most of the time, repair issues with battery packs and fuel cells will probably be remedied by swapping them for replacements rather than actual repairs to these complex chemical units. This will be done both for expedience and safety/environmental reasons.

Standards and Safety Compliance

One of the first steps in making mass-market electric vehicles commonplace is setting standards for both components and safety. In the U.S., this has been underway and partially accomplished by many groups including the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and by California's Air Resources Board (CARB).

These standards include charging system requirements, a standard plug for connecting vehicles to the grid, durability requirements, and in the case of CARB, warranty mandates, and more.

A key here is component durability and safety. Most electric (whether battery-powered, plug-in hybrid, or fuel cell) components in an EV are likely tested and approved by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL). This ensures general safety compliance. Other associations and governmental bodies will also likely become involved with time.

Emergency Personnel and First Responders

Chevrolet has launched the nation's first training program specifically for electric vehicles. Because these vehicles offer a very different set of safety hazards for first responders like firemen and medical personnel who arrive first on the scene, it is important that first responders know what to look for.

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Unliked a gasoline car, which when wrecked will be obviously spilling fuel or fluids, an electric vehicle gives no indication whether it's on (has a closed circuit), off, or shorted. So a first responder reaching into a car to help an injured passenger could be subjecting him or herself to electrocution.

"We believe a first responder educational program is a needed step towards helping this very important group of life-savers understand electric vehicles in the event of an emergency," says Carmen Benavides, Director of Chevrolet Safety.

Most electric vehicles are built with failsafes so that in a wreck (especially when airbags deploy), their power systems are automatically disconnected completely; much like a gasoline fueled car will disconnect fuel lines to prevent fuel from spilling or the engine running out of control.

Most manufacturers of electrics are including easily accessible cut-off switches to isolate the power source (batteries, fuel cells, etc.) from the vehicle to prevent shocks during emergency procedures. These manual switches are usually located near the driver and/or the battery pack (often both) and give responding emergency personnel a visual way to be sure the electrical systems are disengaged.

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