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Hybrid vehicles: A growing concern

December 13, 2007
By Jeff Weber

An issue that has been an increasing concern over the past few years is the number of hybrid cars on the road.  Don’t get me wrong. They are a great addition to humankind’s attempt to lower greenhouse gases.  They create an efficient alternative to expensive, seemingly out-of-reach technologies that provide the direction for the future. But we’re not here to discuss the semantics of new technology, but rather to talk about the increase in the number of hybrid vehicles on Canada’s roads and ultimately the involvement of those vehicles in a collision.  Moreover, it is important to discuss our reaction to these vehicles when and if we are involved in responding to an incident involving a hybrid vehicle.

What is a hybrid vehicle?
First we should review what a hybrid vehicle is and what the technology does to save energy.  A hybrid vehicle uses both an internal combustion engine and an electrical motor to provide power to the drive wheels.  The addition of the electrical motor in essence assists the internal combustion engine to produce enough power for hard accelerations and climbing hills.  These are times when the smaller gas-powered engine hasn’t enough power to remain competitive. The onboard computer controls these functions.

This computer decides when the gas engine has enough power to handle demand and when to add more power from the electric motor.  The computer also decides how the batteries maintain a charge.  The batteries have to recharge somehow.  During times of low power use the computer diverts power back into the batteries.  For example, while the car descends hills the power gained is stored in the batteries.  The computer even uses the energy normally wasted in heat by the brakes by diverting it to the batteries.

How many are there on the road?
Hybrid sales accounted for slightly more than one half of one per cent of automotive sales for 2004, but thanks to higher oil and gasoline prices those sales will see a sharp increase over the next several years. J.D. Powers and Associates predicts that by 2012 hybrids will account for 3.5 per cent of all national light vehicle sales.  The boost will also be assisted with a variety of hybrid choices on the market. That’s right, a variety of cars, SUVs and light trucks will be available.  Gone are the days of identifying a hybrid by its different appearance and the limited models being offered. Now it seems a race is on for all auto makers to produce a number of vehicles that offer the hybrid choice. So this is the first problem of hybrid vehicles.  How does one identify which cars on the road now are hybrids?

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Which car is a hybrid?
As said before it was quite easy to decipher which cars were hybrids on the road up until recently. The cars were either the Honda Insight or the Toyota Prius, the only such hybrid models since 1999. Besides the obvious differences in styling of these vehicles, they were also clearly identified with the word HYBRID lettered on the rear of the vehicle.  Again, this isn’t necessarily so anymore.  As the hybrid concept is absorbed by more and more companies it has also been adapted to current vehicle designs.  Here is a list of current and expected releases of vehicles that have the option of hybrid technology.  This is what I have surmised through research,  there may be others that I have missed.

•   Honda: Insight (available now); Civic (available now); Accord (available now).
•   Toyota: Prius (available now); Camry (expected 2007); Highlander (available now), Sienna (expected 2007).
•   Lexus: GS (expected 2006); RX 400H (available now).
•   Ford/Mercury: Escape (available now); Mariner (available now).
•  General Motors: Chevrolet Malibu (expected 2007); Chevy Tahoe (expected 2007); GMC Yukon (expected 2007); Saturn VUE (expected 2006); Silverado/Sierra (available now).
•   Chrysler: Dodge Ram (expected 2006); Dodge Durango (expected 2007).
•     Nissan: Altima (expected 2007).
•     Porsche: Cayenne (expected 2008).

A daunting list to say the least.  These are the cars that are in production or on the drawing board for now.  We will no longer be able to walk up to a collision and easily identify the hybrids from other vehicle models.  This is where education and training come in.

Familiarize yourself with the vehicles that are coming online.  How do you do that?  Invite yourself to a local dealer.  Ask the local dealer if they have a hybrid that you could use for training.  Not to cut up of course, but to familiarize your crews with identifying hybrid vehicles and their intricacies.  Find your local dealers’ association and ask them for help.  They will be more than willing to assist you with providing your department with educational materials and training.  It is a resource that can and should be tapped.

Make a resource of the auto companies themselves.  Toyota started out with a great little booklet on their Prius that outlines emergency response concerns and how to handle each one.  You can obtain this book for free from Toyota. Other companies have followed with online resources. Get it and read it. Surround it with a training session. It is not something that you should obtain and place on the truck only to be referenced in the heat of an incident. Especially when there are so many hybrid vehicle models out there now. When you get the book, if possible, visit a dealer and go over the vehicle with the booklet in hand. This kind of practice of skill is indispensable when it comes to familiarization of procedures.

What do you do with one when a hybrid is involved in a motor vehicle collision?
So now you have one – an incident involving an identified hybrid vehicle.  You clearly see the word HYBRID across the tail of the vehicle.  What do we do now?  Well, hopefully we have trained up front on this vehicle and know what we are looking at, but here are some helpful steps that are generic to most hybrids.

1. Identify what you are working with. Figuring out that you are dealing with a hybrid is half the battle. Once you know, let everyone know.  Don’t keep it a secret.  By letting everyone know more care can be given to work specifically on the hybrid vehicle.

2. Stabilize the vehicle. It is still critical to stabilize the vehicle prior to accessing the passenger compartment.  In fact, it is even more important with hybrids.  A hybrid vehicle not only needs to be stabilized from body movement, but it also needs to be stabilized from moving forward or backward on its own.  The Toyota Prius specifically will go into a sleep mode if the batteries are charged and the vehicle is not moving.  All that vehicle needs is someone to step on the accelerator pedal and it can come to life and try to drive away.  Chocking the tires to prevent movement in either direction and step-chocking the body is essential.

3. Access the passenger compartment quickly. This is essential for vehicle stabilization purposes.  The rescuer needs to get in and place the vehicle in “park,” shut off the key and remove it.  This will ultimately stabilize the vehicle for you.  The drive systems will then be inoperative.  Lay the keys on the dash so all can be aware that the keys are out.  Communicate your actions to all responders including other emergency services in attendance.
4. Remove 12-volt battery cables from battery if possible.  Once the vehicle is stable and patient care is being attended to, removal of the 12-volt battery ground cable is recommended to ensure there are no other systems that will become active.  The vehicle will not be able to inadvertently start the gasoline engine now.

5. Disable the high voltage system.  This may not be necessary and it is something that will need some reference material to complete.  The high voltage system can be disengaged several ways in each vehicle. There are concerns though when dealing with the high voltage and this procedure should be only considered as a last resort.  Some vehicles like the GM Sienna and Silverado also have 120 volt AC inverters onboard included with the system to provide a 15 amp u ground power tool outlet at the rear of the vehicle. Without familiarization, and reference materials the high voltage systems are best left alone. In no case should cutting or removing the high voltage wires be considered as an option. There should be no mistaking these wires either. They are labelled high voltage, are of a highly visible orange colour and they are usually quite large in size. There should be no mistaking them for other wiring.

Hybrids, even though they have been around for almost 10 years already, present us with some of our more unique challenges for the future along with other technological changes within the auto industry.  It is only through developing unique training opportunities and partnerships that we can head toward better protecting ourselves, and the public we serve.  Hopefully, with training and practice the hybrid vehicle incident will become as “routine” as any other incident that presents itself to us.

References: “44 Hybrid and 26 Diesel Models Anticipated in the US Market by 2012,”  JD Power and Associates press release, June 28, 2005. “Hybrid Safety: Knowledge is Power,” Alexis Gross, April 2004. “Four New 2006 Hybrid SUVs,” www.FuelEconomy.gov.

Capt. Jeff Weber is a 13-year veteran firefighter with the Kitchener (Ont.) Fire Dept. Promoted captain in 1999, he moved from the suppression division to training in 2003.