Electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt are so new, many would-be owners are still anticipating when they can get one, but naturally that has not stopped others from already wrecking them.

Recently Cars.com got to report about repairing a Volt after one of its people had a front-end collision, and meanwhile, body shops everywhere are learning new techniques to safely handle all sorts of damaged high-voltage hybrid and electric vehicles.

A few factors that have already presented themselves are – depending on the accident – the cost to repair a hybrid or electric vehicle may be higher than a petrol car, and the time in shop may be longer as well.

Note vanity plate.

To be fair, the opposite could also turn out to be true. For example a petrol-engined car has components that some EVs do not – like an internal combustion engine, to name one big example. What determines the time and cost will be determined by what was damaged and no sweeping generalizations are being drawn at this stage. As more vehicles are rolled out, a more thorough study will inevitably be done.

Damaged Volt

In the interim, Cars.com wrote in its blog, that compared to a 2011 Malibu, its long-term battery-petrol-powered Volt was $2,181 more expensive to fix than the conventional internal-combustion-powered car, and repairs took five times longer to complete. An initial written estimate was $11,588 and the final total turned into $14,187.

The cost increase was partly because components bundled from GM came differently than assumed by the estimator. Also, hidden damage was found – not uncommon in any repair.

In this case, the main added costs were for initially undetected cooling system damage and for computer reprogramming.

“A normal car with air conditioning can have as few as two or three such [cooling] systems,” said Cars.com. “The Volt uses additional ones to cool the battery and electronics, so no fewer than five heat exchangers, or radiators, and associated plumbing had to be replaced.”

Additionally, the Volt automatically went into safe operation mode after the collision and this cost extra to reset. The body shop manager said other hybrids do not do this.

All the front body work had to come off for the $14,187 job.

As mentioned, repairs also took longer for this Volt. The body shop said a 2011 Malibu with similar damage would have taken from a week to a week-and-a-half to repair. The Volt took seven weeks from the time the insurance company approved repairs to the time it was ready to drive again. Only a few extra days were attributed to parts ordering snafus, Cars.com said.

The body shop manager otherwise said the repair of its first Volt went well, and when it comes time to estimate another, the shop won’t change much procedurally.

One positive aspect Cars.com noted was that a $22,000 Malibu would likely have been totaled with all the repairs the $40,000 Volt received.

Also, everyone was impressed with close attention by GM. The body shop manager said he had never been contacted by GM about a car undergoing repairs before. He was assigned a dedicated Volt adviser who followed the progress from start to finish.

“It seems like GM is on top of this car and trying to make everything work right," said the body shop manager.

Regarding this impression, we would note it was not said whether this kind of close attention is to be expected henceforth every time a Volt is in the body shop. It may be the case until GM is satisfied familiarity with EVs is commonplace, but a few factors bear considering.

As a new kind of vehicle in a live, ongoing experiment toward proliferation, EVs are being scrutinized with great intensity, and critics are ready to pounce.

Just as GM was quickly on the scene when the first Volt was involved in a fire, it is clear GM is following up on its new electric car as needed to ensure a minimum of snags or liability.

Much better now. A repaired Volt ready to go.

Secondly, it is worth noting this particular Volt was in the care of a publication with large-scale influence – one of the few privileged enough to get a long-term Volt for evaluation.

Cars.com is reporting its real-world experiences with this car, and if it had turned into a customer service quagmire, you can be sure the story would have been repeated all over the Internet.

This fact may have played into the close personal attention GM gave, although really it was not inordinate attention, and could be a policy for others as well.

Handling with care

Although Cars.com never made it clear, part of the extra delay for its Volt mending may have been the learning curve needed by the shop to tackle a whole new kind of repair.

In order to fix smashed EVs and hybrids, at least one highly qualified tech trainer is emphasizing extreme caution – with making mistakes not being much of an option.

According to an article by Associate Professor and department head of Collision Repair at Pennsylvania College of Technology, Al Thomas, when a tech contemplates putting hands on a wrecked EV or hybrid, he or she better understand the car could be ready to touch back with 42-650 volts.

“As little as 1 mA (milliamp or 1/1,000th ampere) can cause a tingle,” said Thomas, “and 50 mA can cause severe muscle contraction and may stop breathing.”

Step one before even minor repairs, Thomas said, is de-energizing the electrical system including battery pack and capacitors. How to do this varies from car to car, and according to how mangled a vehicle is.

If highly damaged, its primary breaker may not be accessible (see photos of various ON/OFF switches), so alternative ways to cut power would have to be sought.

Fig. 1: A primary disconnect breaker; Fig. 2: Face shield; Fig. 3: A Honda ON/OFF power switch in trunk. (Photos by Al Thomas.)

Additionally, techs are advised not to push disabled vehicles equipped with regenerative brakes with tires on the ground. Doing so will generate electrical current into the system, either charging the capacitors which is counterproductive to the goal of de-energizing the system, or even producing an arc or accidental shock.

Thomas observed also that the latest hybrids and electric vehicles have multiple electronic systems to account for.

Examples of extra bodily safety precautions required include removing all metal such as rings, watches, belt buckles, etc., and wearing appropriate clothing. If a strong shock does zap a tech, Thomas advised, cotton won’t melt to the skin like polyester or nylon will, so cotton is recommended clothing material.

Further, techs should not be sweaty, as moisture conducts electricity; clothing likewise should be dry, and safety glasses should be worn.

Before doing anything like disconnecting a high-voltage battery, techs must also wear insulating high-voltage lineman’s gloves, he said. Testing the synthetic rubber gloves for pinholes that could transfer current involves inflating them to check for leaks. If handling sharp objects like jagged metal or broken glass, wearing leather gloves over the lineman's gloves is recommended (see photos below).

Identifying whether the vehicle has a lithium-ion battery or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) is important too, as spilled electrolyte from the latter onto aluminum produces hydrogen gas which can explode, Thomas said.

If dealing with a damaged, potentially leaking battery, synthetic rubber boots, coveralls, face shield and correct respirator should be used.

Although not applicable to the Volt, NiMH battery leaks can be neutralized with boric acid and water solution, or with vinegar. After cleanup, Thomas advised retesting the liquid to be sure it is a ph of 7 before removing the protective clothing.

A high-voltage digital volt and OHM meter (DVOM) will also be needed to check that all the charge has had time to drain from capacitors.

In a worse-case scenario where a tech is incapacitated by high-voltage electricity, Thomas offered a plan of action for this as well.

“If a technician is shocked by HV electricity and you try to help, never touch the person,” Thomas said, “Use a non-conductive safety hook (Fig. 11) to pull him away from the contact. In case of a fire, use a carbon dioxide (CO2) gas extinguisher because water can conduct electricity and should be avoided always.”

Fig. 4: Ford Escape's ON/OFF power switch is a round switch under the cargo mat; Fig 5. Ford Fusion ON/OFF switch is completely different; Fig. 6: Secondary location for some HV disconnects is often in the fuse box in the engine bay; Fig 7: Never assume the vehicle is disconnected until you verify it is and the capacitors have discharged; Fig 8: High-voltage lineman's gloves; Fig 9: Inflate fingers, check for leaks; Fig. 10: Leather gloves protect from shards; Fig 11: Non-conductive safety hooks to pull shocked tech away from electrical contact. (Photos by Al Thomas.)

Also, once repairs are all done, paint curing may be accomplished with heat, but both lithium-ion and NiMH batteries can be damaged by excessive heat, so curing paint in a heated booth may be inadvisable.

Thomas noted that Ford recommends its hybrid batteries not be exposed to greater than 140 degrees Fahrenheit, or subjected to heat for over 40 minutes.

One would surmise similar precautions apply to many other EVs and hybrids.

What it means

We hit the highlights on the tech article, but you can go back and read the whole piece linked below if interested. No doubt those actually doing the work are in for a minor education.

As with any new technology, procedures and familiarity will take time for the the service industry to adapt.

Thomas emphasized repair of hybrids and electric vehicles can be done safely, but it will be critical to fully understand dangers and adhere to manufacturers’ protocols.

We will note the same was true of petrol cars. For example, smoking around leaking or spraying gasoline was a habit soon dropped. At this juncture however, it is clear new procedures will need to be learned to safely work on damaged EVs and hybrids. It is not clear however if the average complexity and cost will be shown to be higher over time.

And regarding the average cost of Volt repairs, the jury is also still out. The one incident Cars.com reported does not a trend make.

Accidents that do not damage extra electrical or other components unique to these kinds of vehicles may turn out to be no more costly than comparable repairs on petrol vehicles.

Further information is needed, and that will come after experience and time with more vehicles on the road – and in the shop.

Cars.com blog , SearchAutoParts.com