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Preparing for a Fuel-Efficient Future

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In late August, the Obama Administration announced a new set of vehicle manufacturing standards that could force drastic changes throughout the auto industry: By 2025, new vehicles must be produced with a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) of 54.5 mpg.

That number is roughly double the current average and a hefty increase from the previously set standards of 35.5 mpg by 2016.

The objective, according to statements from the U.S. Department of Energy, is to decrease U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

The results are likely to send a shockwave of changes through the auto industry. Automakers, OEM and aftermarket parts manufacturers, and repairers are all bracing for the changes that could  come.

In a press release_notes from the Automotive Service Association, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu discussed new programs by the Department of Energy to conduct research into new “lightweight materials” to improve vehicle design and manufacturing.

Many repairers, though, also expect another change: an influx in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.
“Almost all manufacturers are producing those types of vehicles now,” said Mac McManus, owner of Mac’s Service Center in Ashland, Va. “We’re already seeing an increase of hybrids and electrics and plug-ins in our shop.

“Right now, it just seems like that’s the way the trend will go in order to get to those fuel efficiency levels.”

McManus, a 30-year veteran of the industry, and the rest of his staff are already hybrid certified through the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), based in Massachusetts. His team has worked on hybrids for more than a year.

Hybrid repair is something not many shops are knowledgeable about, says Craig Van Batenburg, a former shop owner and the founder of ACDC. That’s a mistake, he says, as alternative fuel vehicle sales are growing rapidly and, even if they make up a small percentage of work today, they will be a major part of the automotive industry’s future.
Similar to any new technology in the industry, the shop’s that get the early jump will have the advantage down the road.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on staying up with technology,” McManus says. “You have to have that mentality to be successful in this industry. The shops that are willing to make the investment now are the ones that are going to stay ahead of the curve as more and more changes come up.”

Bob Arlotta, owner of Longhill Auto Service in Millington, N.J., also feels that hybrids will likely be a big part of manufacturers’ plans for meeting fuel efficiency requirements.

That’s why Arlotta’s shop is also already certified in hybrid work. Arlotta was the regional ASE technician of the year from 2001-07 and the 2008 winner of ASE’s national tech award. He says it’s always been a priority for his shop to focus on what’s coming down the road in terms of new technology.

Whether automakers lean on hybrids or some other form of new technology to meet these new requirements, Arlotta says one thing is certain: There will be less maintenance work.

“Vehicles are just being built better and better, and they’ll have to continue to reach those (fuel-efficiency) levels,” he says. “Hybrids already need almost no maintenance. For instance, you can get 100,000 miles out of brakes on a hybrid car because it uses the engine to do the braking. The actual generator of the car is slowing down the car rather than the brakes. ... That’s a drastic change.”

In the years ahead, Arlotta suggests shops develop maintenance plans for new vehicle technology. “Generator work, antifreeze work, battery work — you need to build maintenance schedules around what the new vehicles will need,” he says.

McManus, who began his career working as a dealership technician, feels that it’ll ultimately be to the independent shop’s advantage as vehicles become more sophisticated.
“It’s kind of always been a stereotype that independents just didn’t have the skillset of the dealers,” he says. “In reality, sometimes, the independent actually has the better diagnosticians, because they don’t have the luxury of a parts department to be able to just try parts out.

“If you’re a shop that is preparing for what’s down the road and doing your homework now, any changes that do come will only benefit you, because you’re already ahead of the curve.”

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