Over the past century, gasoline-powered vehicles have gotten simultaneously more complex and more reliable.
Service intervals have lengthened, drivers no longer check a car's fluids daily or weekly, and many new-car owners will never once open the hood.
Reliability data shows that some of them won't visit a dealer service department except for regularly scheduled services over their first three to five years of ownership.
Hybrids added some new complexity—high-voltage battery packs and electronics—to dealer servicing when they started to arrive in 2000.
Plug-in cars in 2011 added further new elements, including electric-car charging stations at dealers.
With more than 1,000 cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells on California roads, how do they change what a dealer's service department has to do? How do they get serviced?
Scott Robinson Honda dealership, Torrance, CaliforniaEnlarge Photo
That's a question we've tried to explore for two years. Over time, we turned to Honda, whose Clarity Fuel Cell went on sale in California last December.
What follows is taken from a long and very informative interview with Doug Reed, a training center coordinator who teaches dealer service personnel what they have to do to prepare for the hydrogen-powered Clarity.
The primary factor affecting how a dealership services a Clarity, he said, is a set of safety rules issued by the state of California.
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Those regulations were drafted in consultation with various makers that now lease hydrogen vehicles in California or have done in the past.
If the sealed high-pressure hydrogen storage system and fuel-cell stack aren't involved, a hydrogen vehicle has most of the same service needs as any other car driven by an electric motor.
Service personnel use standard procedures for repair or replacement of components like electric accessories or suspension parts, for instance.
Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen service equipment: diagram for placement of fuel venting stackEnlarge Photo
But if service work has to touch either the hydrogen storage tanks or the fuel-cell stack itself, or the plumbing that connects those elements, the rules change in a very major way.
Conventionally, working with hydrogen requires a "hardened shop," in which work areas are fitted with hydrogen detectors, curtains around the area, and lighting fixtures that are explosion-proof.
Under the hydrogen-vehicle regulations, Honda can service its Clarity in a "non-hardened shop" if it follows the specific procedures below to ensure the car is in a "minimum-fueled state," meaning the bulk of the hydrogen has been removed from its tanks, stack, and plumbing.
The regulations require that less than 0.5 kilogram of hydrogen, at approximately 580 pounds per square inch, remain in the Clarity's two tanks combined during service. Their total capacity is 5.5 kg at 10,000 psi when full.
To drain the tanks of their hydrogen if a car comes into the dealer with more than that amount of fuel requires a very specific process that takes place outside the service bays.
It's usually done in a designated area of the parking apron that's only accessible to service personnel, Reed said. It will be away from tall buildings, with minimum height and distance requirements that are specified by the state.
Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen service equipment: diagram for assembly of fuel venting stackEnlarge Photo