Towing and Recovering Hybrid Vehicles

Hybrid and electric vehicles are the wave of the future, but the results can be disastrous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

By François Charron—

So far, there are about five million hybrid vehicles on the road worldwide. Four million are Toyotas, mainly the Prius. There are more than 2.3 million in the United States, and in Canada, we’re about to reach the hundred thousand mark for hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and electric vehicles (EV). As the price of fuel keeps rising, more consumers are considering buying one of the 30 or so different models offered by the major car manufacturers.

Like it or not, one of those days, you will receive a service call from a client, an insurer, or the police to move one of these “weird vehicles” off a main highway during rush hour. Then, you will have a choice. You can turn down the call and let it go to another tow operator in your area—a competitor—who has the know-how to handle such a call. Or you can accept it yourself—if you are prepared to handle it.

“If you have the spirit of an entrepreneur, you can see this as an opportunity to diversify and expand your business.”

No one can stop progress and industry trends, driven by consumers’ decisions, economic conditions, and environmental concerns. You can keep answering mainly auto club service calls. Or, if you have the spirit of an entrepreneur, you can see this as an opportunity to diversify and expand your business.

The question is: Are you ready?

I first met Craig Van Batenburg, owner of Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), in Las Vegas in 2006, where he was presenting workshops on hybrid vehicles at the AAPEX, NACE, and SEMA international auto shows. Later that year, we met again at his office in Massachusetts when I enrolled in a five-day training seminar. I wanted to acquaint myself with hybrid vehicles so I could write more relevant articles about them as a journalist.

We met again two years later in Frankfurt, Germany, where Craig was a guest speaker. He had been invited to explain the characteristics of the air conditioning system on hybrid vehicles at the European Automotive Air Conditioning Convention and Trade Show. Over the years, we got to know each other pretty well and became friends. He agreed to an interview when he was recently in Montreal for business purposes.

Tow Canada: Craig, can you tell us about your background?

Craig Van Batenburg: I owned my own garage for more than 25 years. Over time, I slowly developed an interest in hybrid vehicles, and I bought a Honda Insight in 1999 from a local dealer. In those days, I was repairing mainly Japanese cars. In the last years before I sold my business in 2004, I was giving more and more training sessions on hybrids all over the USA.

TC: You’ve gone a long way since then?

CVB: Indeed. Over the years, I bought a series of hybrids from among the most popular brands, and I now own a fleet of nine vehicles that I use for training. I give training seminars all over the USA, in Europe, and in Canada. I have been in Ottawa, B.C., Alberta, and Toronto quite a few times.

TC: What are the most important things for a tow operator to know if he receives a service call for a hybrid vehicle?

CVB: If the operator has never received any training, it is very wise to read the car manufacturer’s safety instructions before even considering moving or hooking up a broken-down or damaged hybrid vehicle.

TC: So, it is important to identify the brand, year, and model of the vehicle?

CVB: Exactly. Manufacturers change a few things from one year to the next. For instance, it is important to be able to locate where the High Voltage Disconnect Plug or Switch is located. This device allows you to manually cut the high voltage power off to the car when servicing or repairing the vehicle.

TC: Can you elaborate on different intervention scenarios?

CVB: Sure. Let’s say the vehicle is broken down for some reason and only needs to be towed away. If the tow operator does not know the right towing procedure for the specific vehicle, he should use a flat bed to move it. If you lift a set of wheels off the ground and the other axle that drives the car is touching the ground, the rotation of the wheels can generate high voltage, which could damage the electrical system.

If the 12-volt battery is flat, you can boost it the usual way, but if the high voltage batteries are dead, you will have to tow the vehicle to the dealer or a shop specializing in hybrids. I provide a list of the most important ones in the USA on my website.

TC: Anything special about the way to hook up the vehicle?

CVB: Don’t fix any chain or choker near the high voltage orange wires that are visible underneath the vehicle. This is at least one thing common with all hybrids. The voltage is sometimes very high, between 100 and 400 volts, and could injure or kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing, especially if the car is damaged.

TC: Can you explain?

CVB: If the car has been involved in an accident, rolling the wheels could generate a spark or produce a short circuit that could start a fire if there is a fuel leak. Also, you must avoid getting near the battery set or the electric/electronic devices that run the high voltage system, because there could still be high voltage present, even if the batteries are disconnected.

TC: If there are injured people, what should be done?

CVB: This involves working with paramedics and first responders and is something I address in my live seminars and webinars. Since the batteries of a Chevrolet Volt caught fire during a crash test done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association in the USA, some people have questioned the safety of hybrid vehicles. This is one of the reasons why it is suggested that the batteries of a hybrid vehicle be completely discharged after a severe car accident. Midtronics, a manufacturer of technologies for battery management, has developed a hybrid lithium-ion battery tester that can do that. That specialized tool will be available on the market at the end of 2012.

TC: Training seems to be a must?

CVB: It is the best thing to do, of course, but to help tow operators, I have developed training DVDs, webinars, and a 100-page colour manual for first responders and tow truck drivers, which can be ordered online. It covers the latest HEV and EV models, including a brief description of the different systems, how to disconnect them, where the disconnect switches are located, and a lot more. I also offer a safety kit, which contains a pair of Class 0 high voltage insulated gloves, safe up to 1000 volts, and a laminated instruction sheet that explains how to tow the most popular brands of HEV and EV.

TC: Online training seems a good way to get acquainted with hybrids as an alternative to training classes.

CVB: I realize that we all have busy schedules and sometimes tight budgets, and this why I am offering live webinars every once in a while to help people deal with the servicing, repairing, and towing of hybrid and electric vehicles. If a person cannot watch the webinar live, it is archived for further study at any time. Our next live webinar for the towing industry will be done in two parts. Each is one hour long, starting at 11:00 a.m. EST. Part one is December 4, 2012, and part two is the next day.

For More Information

This article contains only a fraction of the things to know before towing or recovering a hybrid vehicle, Visit the following links for more information:

Towing resources:First responder kit:
www.fixhybrid.com/first-responder/ACDC website:
http://www.fixhybrid.com/

ACDC toll free number:
1 800 939 7909 | If language is an issue, ACDC can provide a French-speaking trainer in Montreal.

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