While surrounded by electric battery packs in the Automotive and Metals Building at Portland Community College’s Sylvania Campus, Congressman Kurt Schrader looked surprised. And that was a good thing.
Nearby, Automotive Service Technology Instructor Russ Jones explained to the Congressman that Ford, Toyota, and Honda make strong hybrid battery systems, but that the Toyota and Honda modules are somewhat easier to service whereas the Ford pack is nearly impossible to take apart. Also, he said, the Saturn Vue is a mild hybrid system and its only function is the stopping and starting of the vehicle and does not assist in the propulsion.
“Does the consumer know about these differences between the automakers?” the Congressman asked.
“No,” replied Jones.
Congressman Schrader, who serves Oregon’s 5th District, isn’t angling to enroll in PCC’s Automotive Service Technology Program. His questioning of Jones was part of a fact-finding tour on Oct. 30 of the program’s infant hybrid and electric battery repair program, which has garnered notoriety recently for its innovative research to help local repair shops work more efficiently on failing battery packs.
Leading him through the maze of parked hybrid vehicles and electric cars were Linda Gerber (Sylvania campus president), Jones and Kim Kittinger (automotive service technology instructors), Dan Findley (dean of Math and Industrial Technologies Division), Jim Houser (Hawthorne Automotive), Todd Weedman (Todd’s Import Autos) and five PCC students in their last term with the Auto Service Technology Program. The Congressman will take what he learned from PCC and use that to advocate for the college and industry back in Washington, D.C.
“There is a lot of discussion about where our energy future is in this country,” said Congressman Schrader. “It’s tough. Believe it or not we are trying to balance the budget and as a result of that you got to be careful what you invest in. I’d argue that this (green car industry) is the future and where you want to be.
“If we can prove things are workable here in the academic environment maybe the next step then is apply this technology so that the independent licensed dealers will want to do it and, bingo, you’ve made a whole new industry here in America,” he added.
PCC’s Automotive Service Technology Program has been active for years in battery pack repair research and promoting alternative fuel cars. It has participated in National Alternative Fuel Vehicles Day Odyssey every October since 2002, showcasing the latest electric cars and hybrid and alternative fuel technologies at its shop. In 2010, the program earned a $200,000 grant from the Small Business Administration to continue the development of its hybrid/plug-in charge technology program. It’s used those funds to become one of the only academic programs in the nation that is developing curriculum out of hybrid and electric car battery researchto create a template for industry techs on how to service them more affordably.
Jones said his automotive service program, along with the hybrid battery repair component, has advantages. He said students finish the program in just two years and classes are three-times cheaper than for-profit auto programs. Plus, Jones said students get more time in the shop to work on their skills and the jobs they are training for can’t be outsourced. Not to mention, automotive tech job openings are always there even in the downturn, he added.
“We’re dependent on programs like this,” said Jim Houser of Hawthorne Automotive, a PCC auto program partner. “Our last five employees came directly through a community college program; we either sponsored them or they came to us during their student courses. The last person we hired who didn’t come through a community college was eight years ago.”
However, as the automotive repair industry gets more advanced, costs of keeping the program up to date on the technology keep rising. For example, students work on a Cadillac, which has 35 on-board microprocessors that talk to one another. A scan tool, which reads what’s wrong with the vehicle, is good for 3-4 years and expensive to replace.
“I talk to high school students and say, ‘Who in here likes to work on computers?’” Jones told the Congressman. “And half the students will raise their hands. Automotive repair today is working on computers. We have mechanical systems as well as the high-end electronic diagnostics systems. It’s a very advanced education.”