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Hybrid Training Goes Hands-On

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - 23:00
Hybrid Training Goes Hands-On

LEOMINSTER, MA - Last month, 17 technicians and trainers gathered for a four-day, weekend training event on hybrid vehicle technology, service and repair. It was a total immersion experience, much like boot camp. It was the first of its kind for hybrid vehicles offered to aftermarket technicians in New England and perhaps the first in the nation. 

Attended by some of the best techs from three different countries, the event was guided by instructors with national and international recognition. That kind of high-powered talent was needed: The overall objective of the four days was to discover facts and details that don't appear in factory service manuals or existing training materials. 
The first graduating class of "Up Your Voltage 1," with organizer Craig Van Batenburg (center).
(Photo: J. Gordon)

And discover them we did, using live vehicles that required real service, wrecks that could be dissected, "known-good" and "known-bad" components and some very powerful diagnostic software that allowed us to probe deep into the electronic mind of a hybrid vehicle. We were there to discover secrets from vehicles that have lived in the field, not from lab vehicles. We were there not only to learn, but also to write the book for those who will come after us. It was a great beginning.

The event, called "Up Your Voltage," was the brainchild of Craig Van Batenburg, founder of and instructor for Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), Worcester, MA. Van Batenburg's journey from shop owner to acknowledged hybrid guru is the subject of another story, but his shop was still open when he began offering the nation's first hybrid training classes for aftermarket technicians in the fall of 2000. 

Important point for all the students: Make sure the high-voltage power really is disconnected before troubleshooting power inverter fault codes.
(Photo: J. Gordon)

Since then, he's closed his shop and gone into training full-time. He's also become deeply involved in the world of hybrids and has acquired contacts in related scientific and business communities and deep inside the hybrid vehicle manufacturers' engineering and business operations. As a result, his training includes descriptions of engineering design and theory, along with readily available OE information, a history of modern hybrids and the business forces driving the technology. He also possesses a lot of hard-won, real-world information that comes from living with these vehicles day-to-day. In early 2000, Van Batenburg took delivery of one of the very first Honda Insights sold in the United States; his wife's daily driver is a 2004 Toyota Prius. 

For this event, Van Batenburg obtained Insights, Prius and Honda Civic Hybrids owned by some of his former customers and people he's met as a result of being involved in the growing hybrid vehicle community. One was an Insight owned by one of the event's guest speakers, Mike Dabrowski, a self-taught engineer/inventor who has modified his car for use in the Tour de Sol 100-mpg Challenge. 

Dabrowski's Insight is a marvel of outside the box thinking, and even though it's basically a technology demonstrator, it's still his everyday driver. One of his modifications allows the driver to override the Powertrain Control Module (PCM) and choose between motor or engine power manually with a simple joystick. He believes that with a little practice, he can get better gas mileage than the computer can because he can see traffic and road conditions. Experience has proved Dabrowski is right, and he has sold several copies of this modification as a user-installed kit. Visit for more information.
A view behind the rear seat of a Honda Civic Hybrid with the seatback removed. First responders should be aware of the car's construction and layout.
(Photo: J. Gordon)

Our host for the weekend was Dan Pothier, second-generation owner of DJ's Auto Repair. It's a five-bay shop with a large back room for equipment and information storage, a parts department upstairs and a small field alongside that was the perfect spot for a classroom tent. It's a fresh, beautiful shop that is nicely equipped and, it was ideally suited to our purposes. Dan says business is good and his 17-year-old son Adam is looking forward to taking over some day. As a result of the shop's appearance and equipment, more than one student asked about living and working in Leominster.

With such ambitious objectives for the weekend, Van Batenburg broke the student body into three teams and secured the services of three additional trainers. Tony Martin is an Assistant Professor of Automotive Technology at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, AK. In addition to his license as a Canadian Heavy Duty Equipment Mechanic, he also holds 18 ASE certifications, including CMAT, CMTT, L1, and L2. 

David Hobbs is a trainer with Delphi Electronics, and his career was launched after 15 years in his family's automotive electric repair business. 

Gerry "G" Truglia, of Automotive Technician Training Services, specializes in training state inspectors and other trainers in OBD II diagnostics, and he has helped write the certification and testing criteria for several state inspection programs. Though these people are all experts in their field, it's safe to say that they learned as much as everyone else did during this weekend. 

One of the more pleasing discoveries was that some aftermarket scan tools and software products do a surprisingly good job of accessing codes, live data and Mode $06 information, particularly on the second-generation Toyota Prius. We learned how to remove the motor rotor from a Honda, how to drain and refill the coolant on a Prius power inverter, and how to troubleshoot high-voltage control circuits that have suffered collision damage. 

Of course, we also learned safety. Everyone was issued a new pair of gloves rated for 1,000-volt protection, and the very first task was to disable the high-voltage portion of the system and determine when the storage capacitors have completely discharged. Dabrowski gave us a sobering demonstration of the hazards posed by partially charged capacitors. Learning how to shut off the ignition switch on a second-generation Prius was another important lesson, because on hybrid vehicles equipped with Toyota's Smart Key System, the engine can start without warning - even with the key removed.

The hands-on experience gave us an opportunity to dig deep into these vehicles, in some cases even presenting "cutaway" views of various components. One team was able to get their wrecked vehicle started, a particularly sweet success even among this group of highly capable technicians. We also discovered construction and wiring details that first-responders will be eager to learn about. 

One of the most interesting demonstrations was the Prius transmission that ACDC had obtained for disassembly. With two electric motor/generators and a single planetary gear set, it's one of the simplest designs in the world; but seeing it disassembled made one realize what a stroke of genius it really is.

The students came from Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Toronto and British Colombia in Canada, and Sidney, Australia. Though it was a diverse group that came initially for business reasons, everyone seemed to understand that our education was going far beyond the nuts-and-bolts of technology: It may have changed the way we all see the world of transportation. 

One of the guest speakers, James Dunn, has spent the past 10 years as the chief technology officer for NASA's Center for Technology Commercialization. This department is responsible for making technology created for our nation's space program available for commercial development. His presentation helped us all realize that the challenge to the world right now is to develop electric vehicle technology that doesn't rely on any one source of energy for generating electricity. Hybrids are the first big step on the road to truly clean transportation, and they will allow us to perfect electric powertrains so they'll be ready when power generation and storage technology is finally ready for all-electric cars. They will also help people get used to all-electric vehicles.

"Up Your Voltage" was by any measure a success that went far beyond Van Batenburg's intentions, but not his expectations. When you break new ground, it's hard to overestimate the results, and this event provided as much inspiration as it did education. The next four-day class is scheduled for later this year, and it's almost sold-out already, as are the first two events of 2007.

Because of the tools and number of hybrids required for such a class, all of the four-day classes will be held in New England. At the present time four more events are being planned, but there are only 12 seats in each class. Contact for more information.

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