The good news is that today's hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles are proving to be quite reliable. But they'll still require repairs to their unique electro-mechanical systems. And as cities and fleets go green, there's going to be a need for educated, high-tech repair specialists.
Enter Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston's South End, an institution that offers the nation's oldest automotive repair program and now is the first college in the northeast to offer an associate's degree with a specialization in alternative fuel vehicles.
Unfortunately, there was a downside to that claim: the school's auto lab was seriously outdated.
No longer. In September, the school formally opened its Liberty Mutual Alternative Fuels Lab, giving the 100-plus students in the automotive program a big competitive edge in learning how to repair and maintain hybrid, electric, and alternative-fueled vehicles.
"This is exactly the program I was looking for," said Tom Musa, of Allston. "I'm in the four-year program, and my goal is to be a service manager at a top dealership."
Students proudly showed the nine new lifts and two laser-equipped alignment racks that line the gleaming shop area along with work areas and tire machines. On one lift, a Honda Civic Hybrid was partially disassembled, the guts of its electric motor removed and the battery pack and inverter exposed behind the rear seat.
On another, a Prius had its hood up with the all-important "inverter," which converts AC current to DC, removed. In one corner is a 1980 vintage all-electric Comuta-Car. "It's a wiring nightmare, but our instructors say we're getting new batteries for it and will get it running again," said Musa.
The times and jobs have changed, but its still exactly what Ben Franklin envisioned back in 1790 when he left £1,000 ($4,000 at the time) to both Boston and Philadelphia to train apprentices based on his observation that "good apprentices are likely to make good citizens." The school was founded in 1908 under provisions in Franklin's will.
Liberty Mutual, the school's South End neighbor and long-time supporter, funded the lab with a $250,000 grant with additional funding coming from the National Science Foundation and another half-dozen benefactors.
BFIT offers three programs in automotive technology — a certificate, an associate degree, and a bachelor degree in automotive management in what it calls its "2 + 2" track. And it's working: BFIT's graduation rate is three times the average for two-year colleges in Massachusetts.
Like auto techs everywhere, students must have their own tools. "Snap-On and other companies give us a big discount on tools," said Alex Wessling, of Weymouth, who wants to open his own repair facility.
One of the most important "tools" for hybrid service is a pair of high-voltage gloves.
"You see those orange high-voltage wires and you make sure the power is off before starting to work," said Musa. The gloves actually are two-part protection, an inner rubber glove and outside normal-looking work glove.
"They're supposed to give you protection up to 1,000 volts," said Wessling, "but you wouldn't want to test that."
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee