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?
Toyota Service Training Supervisor Chris Peterson teaches dealer technicians about new electrical safety procedures on Toyota's growing group of hybrids that run on 200 to 300-volt battery packs. He shows how the higher voltage systems work and how to safely service them, though he says explaining exactly why things must be done a certain way is critical when educating technicians.
"That's why we do a three-day training class," Peterson says. "A lot of times you can tell somebody, 'Go do A, B and C,' (but) if they don't understand why they are doing A, B and C, they may down the road decide, 'Ah, I don't need to do B, it's not a big deal.'"
Peterson recommends specialized training for any tech preparing to work on vehicles with orange high voltage cables.
"There are a couple hundred volts in the circuit you need to know how to handle when it's time to disconnect those orange cables," he says.
Voltages vary between models and years of Toyota's hybrids, so Peterson tells his technicians to familiarize themselves with whichever they are working on—but be wary of those orange cables.
"You can do anything you want on the car… basically until it's time to disconnect an orange cable—then you need to be trained on how to disable the system," Peterson says. "The biggest thing is not to be afraid of the car—there are quite a few redundant safeties built into it, so it's a fairly simple car to work on."
Even a simple vehicle can cause problems, though. If a technician working on a quiet-running hybrid does not know it is still on, problems can ensue. A hybrid could be running silently, slowly draining its batteries until the gas engine kicks in at just the wrong time.
"To a lot of technicians... if they don't hear the engine running, it's off," Peterson says. "The hybrids we sell have a ready light on the dash, so when you get in and start the vehicle, there is no cranking sound, it basically turns on the ready light. If you're going to do any kind of service work to it, you've got to make sure that ready light is turned off, because it could be silent. You could be out there popping the drain plug to drain the oil out, or heaven forbid working under the hood and it could still be on and the gas engine could start."
Knowing about the system is important, but what do your technicians actually have to do differently when working on these higher-voltage gas-electric hybrids? Aside from those orange cables, Castiaux says everything else is about the same.
"You're going to have all the same problems you'll have on regular vehicles, because they still have gasoline engines with filters and oils," he says. "On top of that you may have electrical problems, usually related to batteries."
He says that when these hybrids start to age, though, techs could have to deal with other unforeseen problems.
"When these cars start turning 15-20 years old down the road, where maybe some terminals get loose and things like that, they may come up with some quirky little problems they're not seeing now," he says. "Other than electrical problems, I don't know what they'd see different that they don't already see."
Castiaux says technicians that take care of gas-electric hybrids may need some extra shop equipment, depending on the vehicle model. Honda, for instance, has an electric motor-pulling tool that pulls the motor rotor out, avoiding damage.
"There doesn't seem to be a big host of tools I've seen," he says. "There's just not much to wear out in an electric motor."
A high voltage battery can go dead, however. Castiaux says that in most Honda products, for instance, you can still start on the regular 12-volt system and get it into the nearest shop for repairs if the high-voltage system fails.
"Some of the other hybrids, when high-voltage goes bad, you call the tow truck, because only the dealers have the capability to recharge those batteries if they're rechargeable," he says. "It's not anything you and I can put jumper cables on and jump—you do not want to attempt that."
It all comes back to those orange cables. Castiaux says technicians need specific electronics training to safety navigate those systems.
"So far the orange cable is for anything roughly over 50 volts, which is considered high voltage—Saturn has come up with a lower-voltage system and they've gone with the blue cabling, but I still respect 36 volts," he says. "Many of us have sparked a wrench or a screwdriver across 12 volts before and jumped back at the big flash that gives us, so if you short across 36 volts, think of the damage that could do, and heaven help us if we short across a 500-volt battery pack. Being aware of electricity and high voltage and what you're dealing with is really going to pay off."
MASHING THE MYTHS
Of course, the big concern about anything high-voltage is the danger of electrocution, but Castiaux says he has not heard of anyone getting injured so far from working on high-voltage hybrids.
"You just need some knowledge if you're going to work on a high-voltage system," he says. "So far everything is in bright orange wiring that is high voltage, and that's really nice. You've got to be cautious around it, but don't be afraid of it. The manufacturers say avoid touching the orange high-voltage wiring, and it's a common sense thing—if you don't have to touch it, don't touch it."
Some emergency personnel are leery about dealing with high-voltage systems, so Castiaux also helps educate them—more than 2,500 so far.
"We start with the basics—how these cars are put together, and what they need to do to be safe around them," he says. "They just need knowledge more than anything."
What does concern Castiaux is the chance someone without the knowledge or patience to figure out about high-voltage systems could make a potentially fatal mistake.
"It's not so much technicians and emergency responders responding to accidents, but in the future, our young people—if they don't get training on these things and they buy some of these hybrids on 'Cheap Charlie's Used Car Lot' and try to hook up a new stereo system," he says. "I hope the day never comes one of them with no electrical understanding tries to splice into the orange high voltage wiring and hook up his stereo, because that's when we could have a problem.