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High Voltage


7/10/2008
By Larry Carley

Hybrid vehicles of all types and sizes are all in high demand but in short supply.
 

When a customer who owns a hybrid vehicle walks into your store and asks for replacement parts, can you sell him the parts he needs? The answer to this question depends on the vehicle he drives and what parts he needs.

Hybrids have been around for a number of years, and their numbers are growing. The first commercially produced hybrid car to hit the road was the Honda Insight back in 2000, followed by the Toyota Prius for model year 2001. But both of these cars were very limited production vehicles. The Honda Insight was discontinued in 2007, replaced by a hybrid version of the Civic. The Prius lives on, and continues as the most numerous and popular hybrid on the road today.

In recent years, other limited volume hybrid vehicles have also appeared, including hybrid versions of the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs in 2005, a hybrid Toyota Highlander SUV in 2006, and others including the hybrid Lexus RX400H and GS450H, hybrid Accord and hybrid Nissan Altima. General Motors has also started producing hybrid versions of its big SUVs (GMC Yukon and Chevy Tahoe). Other models are not true hybrids (no pure electric mode) but do have hybrid-like features such as a high voltage stop/start system. These include the Saturn Vue Green Line and Aura.

One thing these vehicles have in common is that they are all in high demand but in short supply. With gas costing upwards of $4 a gallon, hybrids disappear off dealers lots as fast as they come in.

So what’s the outlook for aftermarket parts sales for these vehicles? Right now, the prospects are still rather limited but improving. When you add up all the hybrids that are on the road today, they total about 1 million vehicles — which is less than 1 percent of the vehicle population. Hybrids are still a very small drop in a very large bucket.

Within five years, these numbers will change dramatically. Hybrids are expected to account for 20 to 25 percent of all new car and light truck sales by 2013. That means a growing aftermarket for replacement parts as time goes on. But for now, coverage is spotty and depends on the year, make and model of the hybrid.

STILL TOO NEW

Most vehicles don’t become candidates for aftermarket repair and replacement parts until they are out of warranty. Although the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius have been around a number of years, the Insight was produced in very small numbers. The Prius was a higher volume car, so for all practical purposes, it represents the lion’s share of the aftermarket for hybrid replacement parts.

One factor that has complicated things for the aftermarket has been the extended warranties that the vehicle manufacturers have been offering on the hybrid components in their hybrid vehicles. For example, the Toyota Prius was sold with a standard 3/36 bumper-to-bumper new car warranty, but the hybrid powertrain components (including the high voltage hybrid battery) on the older models was covered by an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. On the newer Toyota Prius models, the hybrid warranty has been extended to 10 years and 150,000 miles. Similar coverage is included with most of the other late model hybrids. Consequently, the new car dealers have locked up the sale of hybrid replacement parts for years to come. Even so, there are still plenty other parts that can be sold for hybrid vehicles.

HYBRID COVERAGE — OR LACK THEREOF

To find out what kind of aftermarket replacement parts are currently available for hybrids, I did some comparison shopping at both retail (AutoZone and Advance Auto) and traditional (NAPA and CARQUEST) parts stores. I scanned through their parts listings to see what they had for three hybrid vehicles: a 2003 Honda Insight, a 2003 Toyota Prius and a 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid.

As expected, none of the parts stores had any coverage whatsoever for any of the major hybrid components: the high voltage battery, the power inverter, high voltage cables, the hybrid control module, the starter/alternator/flywheel assembly on the Prius and Escape, or the automatic transmission. These are “dealer-only” parts and will likely remain so for now.

I also discovered that many non-hybrid parts on the Prius are as yet unavailable through aftermarket sources. If your customer needs any of the following for a Prius, he’ll probably have to go back to his Toyota dealer: A/C compressor; A/C evaporator; A/C condenser; master brake cylinder; fuel pump; heater core; cooling fan; radiator and springs. This isn’t to say these parts are not available from some aftermarket supplier. They may be, but the parts stores I checked didn’t list them.

When I searched for other common replaced parts, however, I did find fairly good coverage — though it depended on the vehicle. So there’s no reason why you can’t sell filters, belts, hoses, spark plugs, ignition coils, brake pads, rotors, calipers, lights, wiper blades and many other parts for hybrids right now.

With a couple of exceptions, most hybrids use the same fluids as other vehicles: brake fluid, antifreeze, motor oil, etc. These products you also have on your shelves today. But on the Prius, a special type of non-conductive A/C compressor oil is required.

All hybrids to date have conventional gasoline engines that require maintenance and repairs. As these vehicles age, there will be a need for spark plugs, coils, and replacement sensors such as oxygen sensors, crankshaft position sensors and other engine sensors. Coverage is fairly good on most sensors, though I couldn’t find a throttle position sensor listed for a Ford Escape.

As for internal engine parts, I found crankshaft kits, cylinder head gaskets, cylinder heads, oil pumps and some other parts listed for the Prius, but nothing listed for the Insight. Engine parts for the Escape were limited to the oil pump, head gasket and head bolts (probably because this vehicle is still too new for many aftermarket parts).

For fuel system parts, replacement fuel injectors are available for all three hybrids, along with fuel filters. But no listings for fuel pressure regulators (returnless EFI perhaps?). You can get a fuel pump for an Insight, but not a Prius or Escape.

Need an EGR valve for a Prius? I couldn’t find one, but I did see an EGR valve listed for the Escape.

Ignition coils and spark plugs are available for all three.

The cooling system on the Prius is rather unique in that it has three water pumps. There is a conventional mechanical water pump on the engine for circulating the coolant between the engine and radiator (which is available), but there is also a separate electric pump to circulate coolant to the heater core, and a third electric pump to circulate coolant into the special heat storage tank (neither of which are available except from a Toyota dealer). The special heat storage tank (another dealer-only component) stores engine heat for up to three days to reduce engine warm-up time for lower emissions. Other parts such as thermostats and radiator caps are available for all three hybrid vehicles.

Moving to the driveline, replacement halfshafts are available. But on the Insight, the only clutch components listed were a release bearing and slave cylinder (no clutch, clutch disk or master clutch cylinder). No parts other than some seals were listed for the automatic transmissions in the Prius and Escape.

All hybrids have fairly conventional brake systems. Regenerative braking, however, significantly reduces wear on the front disc brake pads, which is why some Prius owners report getting nearly 100,000 miles out of a set of pads. If your customer needs brake pads, rotors or calipers, they are available for the Insight, Prius and Escape. I also found a replacement master cylinder listed for Insight, but none for the Prius or Escape.

Though the availability of aftermarket parts for hybrids will certainly improve as time goes on, for now some parts are difficult to locate or nonexistent. In the meantime, you should browse your parts listings for some common replacement parts for hybrids to see what is and what is not yet available. You might be surprised. t

TELEMATICS: THE NEXT BIG THING IS ALREADY HERE

Telematics is a term that describes all the electronic communications and “infotainment” on today’s high-tech vehicles. According to Motorola, the company that coined the term, telematics is “an automotive communications technology that combines wireless voice and data to provide location-specific security, information, productivity and in-vehicle entertainment services to drivers and their passengers.”

GM’s OnStar is a perfect example of what telematics is all about. OnStar provides navigation information, emergency help (they will call 911 if they detect a vehicle’s airbags have gone off, then direct the first responders to the vehicle’s location using its GPS location), emergency roadside assistance, vehicle security (they can unlock your car remotely, and on newer models even partially disable the vehicle should it be reported stolen), hands free calling, and vehicle maintenance reminders.

Ford’s new SYNC technology on selected 2008 models adds yet another direction to telematics. SYNC is a fully integrated, voice-activated in-car communication and entertainment system that allows your car to talk to a Bluetooth enabled cell phone, iPod or MP3 music player. There’s nothing to plug-in. The vehicle talks to the device via Bluetooth wireless, connects to the device and then gives you the ability to operate any of these devices using simple voice commands. It’s simple, easy-to-use and hands-free. You can listen to whatever tunes you’ve downloaded on your music player, check your email, ask for directions or even find the nearest gas station with the lowest fuel prices (which I tested first-hand at a recent Midwest Automotive Media Association event in southern Wisconsin).

The SYNC system in the 2009 Mercury SUV I saw had a touch screen display that could also be controlled by voice commands alone. When asked to find the cheapest nearby gas, the SYNC generated a list of stations with distances within seconds. The SYNC system uses GPS navigation to establish where the vehicle is, then communicates via its Sirius satellite link to sift through a database of real time credit card transactions at local gas stations. From this, it generates a list that can be categorized by nearest location, lowest price or brand. Pretty cool!

So what does telematics mean to the aftermarket? Lots of opportunities. Aftermarket GPS navigation systems are selling like hotcakes these days, and it won’t be long before these devices will offer more than simple directions and road maps. Some can also play music and display photos and videos. So as GPS technology and mobile phone technology merge, the lines that distinguish one type of device from another will continue to blur.

Pretty soon, these devices will be talking to nearby businesses as you’re driving along to help you find virtually anything you’re looking for. A GPS can give you directions to a local restaurant or any other business, but soon they may be able to give you real-time info on today’s menu specials.

One of the drawbacks of all this new communications technology is that it erodes personal privacy. Two-way GPS communications means that not only do you know your exact location, but so does anybody else who has access to your GPS signal. There are already products that allow parents to track the whereabouts of their teenage drivers when they take the family car out for the evening.

Tollway transponders that automatically deduct a toll from your account as you drive past a roadside collection point are used in many states. Most of these devices do not use GPS tracking, but they do record the time and location of each toll collected. This kind of information has already been used in numerous criminal and civil trials to prove or disprove someone’s whereabouts. It’s no different than your mobile phone provider keeping a record of every call you make. So be careful. Big Brother is listening and watching.

Privacy issues aside, telematics can make driving safer, and hopefully less traumatic when a problem arises. If your Check Engine light comes on, or your vehicle breaks down, your vehicle may be able to communicate your problem to a repair facility for remote diagnosis. They may be able to come back and tell you what’s wrong with your car, how much it will cost to fix it, and when your car will be fixed. OnStar can already detect fault codes, tell you what the code means, and schedule a service appointment at your GM dealer. But they can’t fix your car remotely — at least not yet. That day may come if the “fix” is to download new calibration or operating instructions to your engine’s onboard computer or other module.

It’s hard to predict what the future holds for telematics. But one thing’s for sure. The technology isn’t standing still. It’s going to offer more features, more integration and more communication.















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