Urban Myth Busting - Hybrid-Electric Cars Need No Maintenance
False. However, it is not more or less false than the misleading information consumers have been getting from the new car manufacturers for the past 110 years or so.
There seems to be two schools of thought on performing Preventive Maintenance (PM) on anything mechanical, especially Hybrid Vehicles; people that do it, and those that do not. For a third-party opinion with no ulterior motives for their research, please refer to the 2004 University of Michigan study on Automotive Life Cycles where it was demonstrated that the cost of keeping a conventional car longer by maintaining it, saves up to 60% ( $5,300/year versus $1,800 per year) in the annual cost of ownership compared to trading it in every four and a half years. The savings are even more on a Hybrid Vehicle due to the increased cost to replace the high tech equipment.
The bottom line, your hybrid, just like your "regular" vehicle and your furnace at home, need preventive maintenance to operate at peak performance, and to last as long as possible. But the downside to not maintaining a Hybrid is more costly. Would you operate your non-hybrid vehicle
until the engine seized up rather than change the engine oil? Probably not. Doesn't that logic apply to other fluids and the parts that live in the fluids?
The new car manufacturers are primarily in the new car sales business. Their marketing is designed to make their vehicle appear to have a lower annual cost, depreciation plus maintenance, than the dealer down the street. Their recommended service schedule is designed to make the car barely last through the end of warranty, so they can sell you another new car.
Not only are most of the intervals too long to make the car last a good, long, time but over the years there have been some notoriously missing services. Ford had an issue in the '90's with power steering racks and pump suffering premature failure because there was nopower steering fluid service interval listed in the manual($1,700 repair vs. $200 preventive maintenance). There still isn't and there isn't for many of the following examples.
During the same period GM had an issue with premature failure of their mechanical Anti-Lock-Brake (ABS) system found on their precursor to the current Silverado Pick up as a result of no brake fluid service interval. GM did issue a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) to field service techs, after the techs already figured out the cause and solution, but no revised service information was ever sent to the vehicle owner.
In the mid-2000's, Toyota had a problem with engine sludging due to a too-long oil change interval.
Currently Honda, Audi, BMW, Mini, actually most European cars are replacing engines under warranty due too long service intervals and oil consumption issues.
As it relates to Hybrid Vehicles, we'll use the Toyota Prius as an example, since it is the most widely registered Hybrid or Electric vehicle, currently, in the US.
To mention just a few too-long intervals; there is no brake fluid service interval in the owner's manual. So if the factory doesn't call for it, must not need it, right? nothing could be further from the truth (causes premature linear valve failure, $3,000) also caliper corrosion, $300 to $500. Brake Calipers are usually considered a maintenance service or a repair item when they fail, but replacement is avoidable with fluid service every 24 months or 24,000 miles at around $125.
Transmission fluid service . Factory shows 105,000; 5,000 after the warranty is up. Interesting interval choice; the warranty is 8 or 10 years or 100,000 miles whichever occurs first, depending on model year, but if it makes it out of warranty ($11,000 for a new unit, used is less, a repair in the field is even less but only a few shops can diagnose and perform this repair) Seems to be more cost effective to change the fluid at 5 years or 50,000 miles for $100 to $150, at most independent shops or quick-lubes.
Spark plug change. Factory specifies 105K miles. Field experience indicates that running sparkplugs more than 60,000 miles without inspection, increases the likelihood of them becoming corroded into the engine, making it difficult or impossible to change later.
Cabin Air Filter. Factory calls for 15 months or 15,000 miles whichever occurs first. This interval is one of the few reasonable ones, provided it doesn't get overlooked (out of sight, out of mind).
Throttle Body & Fuel injector cleaning. The Prius uses a slightly different style gas engine than most conventional vehicles. There are pros and cons - Google Atkinson Cycle Engine to see the differences and those pros and cons. One of the downsides is it causes the engine intake, the pathway for fuel and air to mix and enter the engine and the exhaust to exit, to develop carbon deposits that must be physically cleaned and removed. The process is called Throttle Body Cleaning.
The most controversial, missing, service interval is the Hybrid High Voltage Battery Pack. There is no interval. Wait for it to fail, pay $4,500 to the dealer to replace it.
I say controversial because it should be removed and conditioned and cleaned every 5 years or 60,000 miles, to prevent or forestall battery pack failure. Since the Hybrid Battery Pack is an emission system component, it has to be covered by the emission warranty, just like a catalytic converter for 8 to 10 years or 80,000 to 100,000 miles depending on what state it is registered in, year, make, model. The dealer does not have, and most likely never will have, the equipment required to condition the battery pack, so there is no Preventive Maintenance interval. Just a replace it for $4,500 when it fails. Years ago, Honda had no Fuel Filter change interval. Tow your car in when it plugged up the filter and stopped running, no preventive change interval.
Really? I would not do that on my own vehicle, why would I do it to a customer's? 30 years later; same approach. Wait until the light comes on or it won't start. Limp in or Tow it, replace the Hybrid Battery Pack for $4,500. Wouldn't it make more sense to drive it to a Hybrid Specialist and condition the battery for $2,500 before the light comes on?
Hybrid-Electric vehicles are referred to as a Highly Integrated/Balanced Machine because the Gasoline Engine (I.C.E.), the Electric Generator, the Electric Drive Motor, the Regenerative Brakes, and the High Voltage Battery Pack are all interdependent. In order to prevent premature Battery Pack, Electric Machine, Brake System failure, or Poor Fuel Economy or Poor Performance, all the systems need periodic preventive maintenance. See the attached graphic, courtesy of Future Tech Auto
All the services on the list above, plus some others relate to that highly integrated system; Engine Oil Service, both Cooling System Fluid Exchanges, Brake Fluid Exchange, Transmission Fluid Exchange, Spark Plug replacement, Throttle Body Service and Fuel Injector Cleaning, High Voltage Battery Pack PM, and Cabin Air Filter.
The most common causes of premature Battery Pack Failure are lack of maintenance on the systems listed above and improper vehicle choice, i.e., vehicle usage falls outside the design parameters (vehicle sitting idle for months at a time, like part-time residents or primarily used for freeway driving.
Provided by Bob Dupre, C-1
ASE certified Service Adviser and Founder of CARS of America
an independent repair shop specializing in Hybrid-Electric Vehicle service and repair