This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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Almost a generation ago, John Kelly saw two waves coming.
The first wave began in 2000 when Toyota brought the Prius, the first popular hybrid car, to the United States.
“I was a late comer in 2004,” said Kelly, a professor of automotive engineering at Weber State University. That’s when he first got the chance to tear a Prius apart and learn about how it integrated electric power into an internal combustion car.
The second wave came a few years later when YouTube launched the video revolution, and Kelly started uploading instructional videos about hybrid and electric cars.
“That’s been a huge attractor,” he said.
Understatement. The videos Kelly has uploaded to the WeberAuto YouTube channel have received more than 40 million views. The channel itself has 330,000 subscribers.
And he’s constantly adding more. In a recent series, he tore apart the motors from a Ford Mustang Mach-E GT that had been donated to the school, describing each component with a folksy smile. “ ... OK. Let’s take a look at these axle housings and see what we can see. ... ”
All of a sudden, a guy in Utah is training the world on the next generation of transportation.
“We have people from the Middle East contacting us,” said Kelly’s department head, Jessica Slater.
Weber has developed a curriculum for training technicians on all aspects of hybrid and electric maintenance. All of the automotive technology department’s 250 students receive EV and hybrid training, and it is offering certifications to others who complete two online courses and a one-week “boot camp” at the school’s Davis County campus in Layton.
So far, Kelly has taught 18 boot camps, and it’s become apparent that he is training the trainers. “More than half are college instructors from all over the country and the world. … They’re 15 to 17 years behind us.”
‘Volts and Bolts’ discussion on Weber campus
The Salt Lake Tribune, Rocky Mountain Power and Weber State University will host “Volts and Bolts,” a community conversation on the electric vehicle rollout and the implications for the automotive technology profession. The Sept. 29 discussion will include Weber State Automotive Technology department head Jessica Slater, professor John Kelly and James Campbell, director of innovation and sustainability at PacifiCorp/Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company. Tribune renewable energy reporter Tim Fitzpatrick will moderate. It will be held in Building D2, room 110 on Weber State’s Davis County campus in Layton at 4 p.m. A livestream will be hosted at sltrib.com. The event is free, but RSVPs are encouraged at bit.ly/tribunevoltsandbolts.
On YouTube, Kelly is a one-man show. He has his own cameras and lights on tripods, and he shoots, edits and uploads the videos himself, challenging work for a man who has a form of muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair for the last nine years after several years on crutches.
He puts in long hours to produce the videos while teaching classes. “Being in a wheelchair, there aren’t a lot things I can do for fun. This is my passion and my hobby,” he said, adding, “I don’t stay late. I come in early.”
He also relies on student assistants to handle the hard-to-reach jobs on the cars. One current assistant, Nash Stephenson, said Kelly only occasionally needs his help. “If he can get it, he gets it.”
“Awesome,” Stephenson said about working as Kelly’s assistant. Like many other students, he came to Weber from out of state because of the program’s growing reputation. He completed a two-year auto tech program in California, and he came to Weber to get a four-year degree. “It’s really eye-opening because it’s different from what I learned before.”
Still a love for combustion
Stephenson knows electric will drive the industry, but he hasn’t lost his passion for pistons. He drives a 1996 Buick Roadmaster, a V8-powered gas burner four years older than he is. “Cars have been important in the family for a long time.” His father operates a mobile car detailing business, and his grandfather ran an auto wrecking yard. He said when he can no longer drive the Buick, he will keep it forever in his garage.
Ruben Rodriguez took a similar path, completing a two-year program in Texas before coming to Weber to “expand my horizons.” He recognizes that improvements in electric vehicles are going to drive the market. “Technology is like a bunny. It hops.”
Rodriguez said EV maintenance relies more on what computers reveal and less on a technician’s senses. Working on gas-powered cars, he recalls times when the computer diagnostics were not as accurate as listening to the engine run or smelling for unburned fuel in the exhaust.
Slater, the Automotive Engineering department head, has been advising incoming students for years. “They come in with a passion for horsepower.” Once they’re in the program, they come to understand that electric can be high-performance. “Once they get exposed, they get excited.”
She thinks last month’s announcement of an all-electric Dodge Charger concept car will change a lot of people’s perspectives. “It’s a well known muscle car.
Like everyone else, the school faces a constant challenge to get new electric vehicles. Schools get special pricing that can push them to the back of the line. They’ve been waiting more than a year to get one of the much-anticipated Ford F-150 Lightning pickup trucks, said Scott Hadzik, another automotive technology professor.
Weber is also raising the EV and hybrid bar for other Utah schools. With the help of some state grants, the department has been purchasing equipment and developing curricula for 14 northern Utah high schools and four applied technology centers. Slater has data showing employers are hiring about 400 students per year — from Weber’s programs and from programs at the technology centers.
She said the school is also planning to roll out a new four-year degree program in “automotive electrical engineering technology,” which addresses a critical request from car makers for more expertise in electrical engineering.
Safety first and always
For the high schools, the training emphasizes safety. The instructors in high schools don’t have much exposure to the high-voltage systems that can be deadly if mishandled.
Among other things, safety means wearing a lot of gloves. When working around any system electrified by a car’s batteries, technicians wear at least two layers of gloves, one of them a rubber layer that is an electrical insulator. Some also add an inner liner. Those and non-conducting tool kits are in bright orange toolboxes that Weber shares with the other schools.
Safety is also the entire focus of the first online course offered in conjunction with the boot camps. Kelly said knowledge about safety and all the new systems on electric cars will be a bigger challenge for auto technicians than the purchase of special equipment. “If I was running a dealership or a shop, I would be downloading all the manuals.”
And if they get stuck, they can always find Kelly on YouTube.
Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.