Northwest shops plug into hybrid and EV market to charge profits
While combustion engines powered by gasoline and diesel products remain the top sellers in the U.S., hybrid and electric vehicles continue to see growth each year. Most industry analysts predict hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric vehicles (EVs) will continue sales growth dramatically during the next 10 years, and sales will rise sharply if a major increase in fuel prices remains for any period of time.
As sales of hybrids and EVs increase, shop owners and managers can capitalize on the segments.
“Currently the only pure EV we service is the Nissan Leaf,” said Jim Houser, AAM, co-owner of Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Portland. “Because the Toyota Prius is the best-selling hybrid, we service 40-plus Prius units a month, as well as hybrid models that include Honda Civics, Toyota Highlanders, and Ford Escapes.”
Hawthorne offers full service for both EVs and HEVs, “but we no longer rebuild battery packs; we only install new HV battery packs.” He said there has been a dramatic decrease in the quality and support of “reconditioned” battery packs over the past several years and a drop in the price of new packs from Toyota.
“Toyota R&D appears to be leading the way with better and lighter motors and generators, as well as better batteries,” he said. “The 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid AWD average fuel economy jumped from 32 MPG to 39 MPG. And it’s more powerful and lighter, plus the MSRP has dropped by almost $300 over the 2018 model.”
From a repair facility’s marketing/proficiency perspective, Houser said “being service-ready for HEVs and EVs signals to any consumer, whether an HEV owner or not, that you are capable of understanding and successfully servicing their late model, technically complex ride of choice.”
Hawthorne shop personnel have received extensive hybrid and EV training over the past 16 years, including bringing instructors in-house. Trainers have included Craig Van Battenberg, Jack Rosebro, Harvey Chan, Mark Quarto, and others.
“We have participated in obtaining both the ASE and SAE HEV and EV certifications, and our staff truly enjoys being recognized as hybrid/EV proficient,” Houser said, adding that the Hawthorne website promotes hybrid service. “Our personal car is a 2001 Prius and our shop car has a 2004 Prius, both with original battery packs.”
Eastside Autoworks and Bellevue Auto Service & Electric services several hybrids each month, but no electric vehicles.
“We just acquired a battery scan to get a better idea if batteries need service,” said Glenn MacMillan, owner of the Bellevue, Wash., shop. “The plan is to purchase a Prolong Hybrid Charger and sell this service to customers.”
With Toyota reducing the price of battery packs, MacMillan said dealers have gained back some business. “The aftermarket seems soft to me right now.”
“We have a Prius, and over the past 10 years we’ve noticed that to get the maintenance and repair business for hybrids you have to own one,” he said. “For EVs, it’s apparent that a shop will need a charging station and their own EV to convince customers they can work on them.”
MacMillan’s staff has received hybrid training at Automotive Training Expo (ATE), from Craig Van Battenberg, and other sources. “We will do additional advertising this year and have plans for a social media campaign to promote hybrid service,” he added.
Todd Black, AMAM, co-owner of two Unlimited Service shops in Bellingham, Wash., and his staff have received extensive training from hybrid and EV training company ACDC, and Jack Rosebro, among others over the years.
“We service at least one hybrid every day, though our rejuvenation process can take up to a week, so we usually have five or six hybrids in the shop at all times,” Black said, adding that his shops generally service about one EV a week.
“We have owned more than 13 hybrids, have eight currently, and will add a Nissan Leaf EV soon,” he said. “You always know more about your own car since you can use them for learning and testing. We also promote hybrids as loaner cars as it shows customers you own them and know about hybrid vehicles.”
Black said his shops perform virtually every possible service and repair on hybrids, including battery repair and replacement referred to as “rejuvenation.”
Over the past four years, they have performed more than 300 rejuvenations that range between $900 and $1,600. “One of our five techs is dedicated to hybrids, so that represents about 20 percent of our work.”
For some four years, Black has worked with Jeff Sloan at Hybrid Automotive as a consultant on Prolong hybrid battery charging and reconditioning products, and Unlimited Service was the beta site for the upgraded ProlongPro series of equipment. As a result of his longtime hybrid battery experience and work with Hybrid Automotive, Black created and instructed a Hybrid Battery Repair & Rejuvenation class that he presented at some 10 ASA Northwest (ASA-NW) chapters meetings in the region (he is a former chairman of the board of ASA-NW and currently is on the board of the national ASA organization), and has mentored dozens of shops on hybrid battery repair and replacement.
EV service is more limited “because there is not much we can do with the lithium batteries, but we’re working on it,” Black said. “We certainly do normal maintenance and are in the process of doing our first DC to DC converter in a Leaf.”
He added that his shops are seeing more EVs as many as are coming off factory warranty. Black stresses to shops the importance of various aspects of insurance coverage and the dangers of charging EVs. Last June, a fire at his Bellingham shop caused by a Smart Car charging overnight, resulted in $1.7 million in damages.
The big change in hybrids, Black said, is that almost every automaker has one or models available, plus the advent of plug-in hybrids is becoming more common. “EVs are now all lithium batteries and we certainly learned that they can still catch fire, even on a low charge.”