Fix It, Don't Fear It

High-voltage wiring in hybrids is becoming a common shop concern.


From the earliest age, we're taught that red means 'stop.' Yet for those who maintain modern high-voltage vehicle systems on gas-electric hybrid vehicles, that color these days is clearly orange.

Among drivers, technicians and emergency responders there is a lack of knowledge about these relatively new systems: How do I know when the car is on or not? Will I get zapped if I touch the wrong part? And what's with all these orange wires?

One place people go for the latest information and training is Midwest City, OK, home of the Electric Vehicle Center of Technology, where Dave Castiaux manages and instructs the Electric Vehicle Program.

Castiaux has worked with high-voltage systems in gas-electric hybrids since they arrived in the U.S. around 2000, and these days his mission is to educate people about these systems that seem to be growing in power by the day. He says when the hybrids first came out, the goal of consumers seemed to be good gas mileage, but in recent years he says that has been pushed aside by the drive for faster starts and more power—creating the need for increasingly higher-voltage batteries.

"Now we're getting vehicles with battery packs upwards of 500 volts and the car's actually operating as high as 650 and that may even go higher in the future," he says. "By having the high voltage, we've got the quick take-off we're all accustomed to from the stop, and that's what people want. We won't take anything less than what we're used to."

While some people like the fast getaway a higher voltage system provides, there can also be some fear about having high voltage wires running through their vehicle. Castiaux says that's natural and not necessarily bad, but through proper training, techs who work on these systems have to get over it.

"From day one when you get your first diaper put on your butt, you're conditioned to be very leery of electricity," he says. "When a lot of the automotive technicians find out they are going to be working on vehicles that operate up to 650 volts, they're leery of it. We've got to give them the tools, understanding and knowledge to be able to deal with these high-voltage systems. There is a lot to it—there are college courses dedicated just to understanding electric motors."

TEACHING NEW TRICKS

Breaking in hesitant techs on these new systems is a big part of Castiaux's job, but once he is able to explain how the systems work, he says their apprehension generally disappears.

"The manufacturers have done a great job building in safety," Castiaux says. "When you learn about (high-voltage systems) and what to be careful with and how to deal with them, most technicians we train are very happy they've gotten into hybrid vehicles. It's a new experience for them; it's a challenge."

Some technicians are hesitant about working on high-voltage hybrid systems because they are simply unfamiliar with them.

"Most of the people we get are strictly mechanics, and they've been mechanics all their lives and they haven't dealt a lot with electricity," he says. "Vehicles are becoming more sophisticated with electronics, but even all of that is handled with diagnostics—it tells you what part to replace and you replace it. I don't see (techs with) a lot of specialized (electrical) training."

What makes Castiaux's job more difficult is the number of hybrids entering the market and the lack of any real voltage standard, so he focuses on general knowledge.

"I don't know that there's any way one training organization could train anybody on all the different vehicles out there, so right now the manufacturers are training their own people to work in the service centers," he says. "If the technicians get out there and start doing this, they definitely have to be into the manual for the vehicle and follow it step-by-step to get the job done if they're not working for a specific manufacturer."

WHY ASK WHY?

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