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PCC a beacon in hybrid, electric car repair research
Photos and Story by James Hill
A service repair on an internal combustible engine vehicle can cost hundreds of dollars. The replacement of a battery for a hybrid or electric car will cost thousands.
Portland Community College’s Automotive Service Technology Program at its Sylvania Campus (12000 S.W. 49th Ave.) is developing curriculum out of hybrid and electric car battery research to create a template for industry techs on how to service them more affordably.
According to PCC Auto Service instructors, they see the need because the industry is reporting more battery wear-and-tear stemming from the original hybrids that are more than a decade old. When trouble strikes, technicians typically just replace the battery pack, which costs the consumer roughly $2,000, rather than trouble-shooting the cause.
“The reality is that these vehicles are starting to get to the point where they are having component failure in the battery packs, the inverters and electric machines,” said Russ Jones, PCC Automotive Service Technology instructor and the lead on the program’s hybrid training. “The industry has not been very good at training technicians on how to deal with these cars safely as well as make diagnostic repairs. We’ve recognized the need to provide training for working technicians.”
Battery research like ‘exercising’
Through the program’s own research, PCC technicians have reconditioned batteries for two Honda Civic Hybrids, improving engine performance and fuel economy. Kim Kittinger, Automotive Service Technology instructor, said she and her students break the battery packs down, taking out individual modules and test how strong they are. They do that by seeing how long the power supply goes for by dropping the power down to their dead cells and then bringing them back up and maxing them out with energy. They repeat the process over and over.
“It’s like when we exercise and push ourselves, we get stronger,” Kittinger said. “Not all of them, but many of the batteries we can bring back to life. It’s really cool. Then we put them into the packs and back into the cars. We end up buying more time and more life for these packs. It’s vehicle maintenance really; the new form of it.
“Our research is letting us figure out how to test these by seeing what we can and can’t rebuild and what we can or can’t replace in it,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good answer on how long we can expect these to work after we rebuild them.”
Findings lead to new curriculum
The aim is to massage this research into its curriculum to share with students, local technicians, fellow community colleges and businesses across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The program, which is developing a 30-credit hybrid-training certificate, has partnered with two local repair shops, Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Southeast Portland and Todd’s Import Automotive in Lake Grove, to look at how they can provide better and more affordable repair work for hybrid and electric cars.
“It gives us more validity of what we are doing by seeing how this works on a real-world customer’s car,” Jones said of using the repair shops in their research.
In particular, Hawthorne technicians are using PCC tools and equipment as well as the research in the auto shop’s lab to make repairs on their customer’s vehicles to test out the developments. In return, the shop and its customers give feedback to PCC on how well the cars are responding to the work. Jim Houser, co-owner of Hawthorne, said his company has had a longstanding relationship with PCC.
“We had also decided to focus on hybrid repair, but there’s a limited amount of information available to independent repair shops and even dealerships have just one or two people fully up to date on them,” said Houser, whose shop has been repairing hybrids since 2002. “Mistakes can be costly. If you do something you shouldn’t it will cost the shop owner a lot of money. For us it’s been a really good partnership with PCC and has given us the skills and confidence to go deeper than we would normally and do the repairs knowledgeably and safely.”
Federal funding helps train future green workforce
The college has invested approximately $350,000 in hybrid and electric equipment such as the purchase of 10 hybrid cars plus tools; built a hybrid mock-up for students to learn on (2006 Toyota Prius); offered continuing education training to fleet and industry techs; and integrated findings into the curriculum.
In September of 2010, PCC received a federal grant of $200,000 from the Small Business Administration (co-administered by the Department of Education). The college was one of several partners on the grant, but the only auto-related partner involved. The mission of the grant is to establish green jobs or advance the green skill set of workers in industry and make them more marketable.
Josh Miller, 30, of Southeast Portland and a native of Indiana, is in his first term in the Automotive Service Technology Program, pursuing a childhood dream of working on cars. He said the automotive repair field is changing and new technicians need those green skills.
“I don’t think you can work in this field and not know how to work on a hybrid vehicle at some point in your career,” Miller said. “Hybrid work is very new and unfamiliar, but I’m interested in getting further into it. I think these skills are very marketable. This is definitely needed. It seems like this is where everything is going.”
Houser said students with hybrid repair skills will be in demand.
“With new fuel economy standards coming, the most effective way for car manufacturers to meet them is to build some version of a hybrid,” Houser said. “Everybody has a hybrid. People have a big investment in those cars and they want to keep them longer.”