This shop owner tells how embracing hybrids saved his shop.One would think that after running a successful automotive repair business for 22 years, the direction of the business would be pretty much written in stone. What then, would compel me, the owner of Taylor Automotive, to change course during one of the worst economic times in U.S. history?
We saw this as a providential intervention. It was 2005, and at the time we had never had a hybrid vehicle in our shop even though hybrids had been in the U.S. for six years and quickly were approaching the end of the manufacturer's warranty period.
I got an e-mail from an acquaintance from iATN, Craig Van Battenburg, telling me about this new hands-on hybrid training his company was starting. I thought, "This is it." I knew we would need something to pull more vehicles into our service bays. Little did I know at the time that Craig was facing the same issues I was and had decided to close his repair shop and develop a hybrid training business.We had noticed the decline in major repairs over the years as manufacturers did a better job making cars last longer. Car counts were dropping because of a faltering economy, and we were beginning to feel the pinch after having built a 7,200-sq.-foot facility with all new equipment in 2001. We actually moved into our new building on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks on our country. The negative impact on our business was immediate.
I remember going home from work one day in 2005 and telling my wife about the hybrid training and how I thought I should go. The first thing she asked was, "How many hybrid customers do we have?" My answer of none didn't sound all that optimistic to her.
The second question she asked was, "How much will it cost?" My reply of "$2,600 plus airfare and a week away from the shop" didn't help.I think at this point, my wife thought I had totally lost my mind and I was not so sure I could argue the point considering the facts.
Well, we decided after much prayer that I would go for the training and just see if this would be the move that allowed us to survive the downward trend in business. It was truly a "sink or swim" moment.
Utilizing the TrainingThe training was solid. There were no sales pitches, only the meat and potatoes of hybrids and what can go wrong with them. The week consisted of classroom and hands-on training with each of the 16 students, working in teams of four, digging into these cars to see what makes them tick.
When I got home, I had so much new knowledge, but nowhere to apply it because we had no hybrid customers yet. I decided if I was going to be able to get good at this hybrid business, I would have to own one. I went to an insurance salvage auction and bought a lightly damaged 2005 Toyota Prius.
I had our techs start playing with the car right away. It didn't take long with our crew disconnecting things to see how the car responded to figure out that we would need a factory level scan tool if we were going to be able to give our customers the level of service they expected.After purchasing the scan tool and many weeks of discovering how the vehicle responded to various failures, we felt that we were ready to take on a customer's Prius if any came in. Within a few weeks, we got our first Prius in for an oil change.
I remember that being a very exciting day for everyone. Even though it was just routine service, we were equipped to recognize all of the things that needed to be checked and were able to impress the customer with information about the car that the dealer had never made her aware of.
We soon started advertising our ability to work on hybrid vehicles and also began buying other hybrids so we could become more familiar with them.
Our second hybrid was a 2001 Toyota Prius. As we began taking it apart to examine areas that were failure prone, we discovered several areas to focus on.The most common areas we found were related to the 12-volt battery, the HV battery, dirty throttle body, inverter coolant pump, inverter, transmissions and electric steering rack. We have since surmised that failing HV batteries led to the many transmission and inverter failures. Failing inverter coolant pumps also causes inverter failures.
We also learned that all bets were off as far as diagnostics were concerned unless we knew for sure we had a good 12-volt battery, because its primary function is to power up all of the system computers.
Making Your Own ProceduresWe wanted to check out an HV battery, because I saw in class some of the problems with the earlier generation 2001-2003 Priuses. We removed the pack from our car and tore it down. We discovered a lot of corrosion (where the individual cells connected) that appeared to be a rather serious problem.
I called Van Battenburg to see what he recommended. He said, "Someone should develop a repair kit for this, but for now, your only option is to get the replacement parts from Toyota."
I called the dealer and $300 later had the parts I needed to replace the corroded parts. I was surprised that the replacement parts were identical to the originals. I assumed that the manufacturer would have upgraded these parts because they were having so many issues. As we were installing the new harness and bus bar system, we noticed an imbalance in the battery that I felt could have been caused by the corrosion.
We knew we were charting new territory because the only dealer option was to replace the entire HV battery pack, so we figured we needed a way to charge and discharge these batteries for testing purposes. But there were not any companies making any such equipment.
I probably spent two to three months of calling and searching online in an attempt to find someone to sell me what I needed to properly test these batteries. Most every contact resulted in the same answer: Nobody was interested in supplying a charger or test equipment for such a high-voltage battery. I knew at this point that if I was going to be able to do anything beyond just replacing the entire battery pack, I would have to build my own equipment.
After studying chargers and testers, I came up with a plan and ordered some parts. I took a week off work and started building the equipment on my kitchen table. My first attempt was a failure complete with sparks and smoke. I went back and studied what had gone wrong, corrected the problem and reassembled the charger. This time, everything appeared to work as planned. My first load tester was constructed of a string of flood light bulbs, which worked OK, but not as well as I wanted. I studied how to construct resistive load devices and ended up with my own unique design that could simulate normal loads seen in a hybrid vehicle.
At this point, I needed a broken battery to experiment on. On Friday of that same week, I got a call from our service advisor asking if we could work on a Prius battery. I excitedly told him yes and he scheduled the car in for the following Monday morning. I got the car in and disassembled the battery pack, cleaned, replaced worn parts, charged and balanced everything. We installed the battery back into the car, cleared the trouble codes and went for a drive. Now everything was back to normal with the car and we were confident that we had developed a solid procedure for repairing these batteries.
Expanding Our Reach
As our knowledge of hybrid battery packs increased, we began experimenting with different methods of restoring battery function. One major improvement we made was developing our own replacement bus bar that is corrosion resistant. We even had a special die made to produce them in mass quantities.
We kept very detailed logs of every change we made and how the changes affected the operation of the battery in the car. In the beginning, we had some very cooperative customers that allowed us to experiment with their cars in hopes of finding an alternative to buying the factory battery. After several successful repairs on customer's batteries, we decided to start marketing our process nationwide.
In 2008, we formed Re-Involt Technologies as a division of Taylor Automotive. We track every detail of every battery pack from the time it arrives at our shop. We have customers with our batteries that are more than 3 years old and close to 100,000 miles on them that are still running strong. When we have a failure, we go back to our logs and see where we went wrong, tighten up a process and move forward.
We have expanded our battery business into other areas with the development of a new lithium battery for the Honda Civic hybrid that should be available for sale early 2012, with other lithium batteries in the planning stages. Batteries certainly are not the end of our story, as we have begun to rebuild inverters and hybrid transmissions as well.
Currently, about 40 percent of our overall business comes from service and repair of hybrid vehicles. We have customers routinely driving or towing their hybrids to our shop from several surrounding states. The customer who traveled the farthest to have us repair his car was from Canada, some 1,500 miles away.
This tells me that there are very few shops that have taken this hybrid business seriously.
I am not sure how we could have stayed in business these past three years if we had not gone into the hybrid specialty business.
For those shops that are just now considering adding hybrid repair to their service offerings, there will be a lot of information to catch up on. I would suggest to getting into some intense hybrid training like I did. Try to seek out training programs that are not tied to the sale of a product. It takes a lot of work to become proficient in this business and the same holds true for trainers. A trainer that is focused solely on hybrids will be able to give you more for your money than those to whom it is just one of many courses they teach. It also will be important to own one or more hybrid vehicles. Our shop currently owns 10 hybrids that we use for training purposes and customer pickup.
Marketing to the hybrid vehicle owner is completely different than your average non-hybrid car owner as well.
Most hybrid owners absolutely love their cars and they are highly educated about how they operate. They will notice if their tire pressure is not exactly where it should be and will let you know immediately if you did something that affected their fuel economy.
If you sell tires, choosing the wrong set for a hybrid car can cause a 5 to 6 mpg drop in fuel economy, and the customer will most likely demand that you correct the problem. It requires a little research, and in our case, experimenting on our own cars before selling a new product or service to a hybrid customer.
The largest majority of hybrid owners are 45 to 54 years of age and have incomes of more than $150,000 per year. With almost 2 million of these driving around, it certainly opens up a great opportunity to those shops that are willing to cater to this crowd. We have had numerous hybrid owners come in and just talk to us several times before letting us service their car for the first time. I also have found that the hybrid customers will often ask what vehicles we own and I believe it would be a harder sale if I told them I drove a Hummer.
The good news in all of this is that if you do your homework, you easily can transform your shop into a facility that draws good customers that value their vehicle investment and are willing to pay whatever it costs to keep their hybrid on the road.
The future of this segment of our industry looks very bright as more manufacturers add hybrid and electric vehicles to their product lines. In the 1980s, we were known all over the state for installing aftermarket A/C systems on vehicles that were sold without factory A/C. We have now begun to install plug-in (PHEV) kits on hybrid cars that greatly increase the fuel economy on a hybrid.
We are now building a nationwide reputation for this portion of our business. We recently purchased a vehicle charging station that will allow us free advertisement on OE manufacturer websites as well as getting free highway signage directing PHEV and EV customers to our shop.
The auto service industry is changing and we can choose to change with it or step aside and let the next generation of savvy technicians and shop owners assume control.
With more than three decades of automotive repair experience, David Taylor is owner of Taylor Automotive, Sanford, N.C. He holds Master ASE certification and L1.