Some dealers can’t wait to sell electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and the like to consumers interested in emerging alterative powertrains.

But megadealer Mike Jackson can’t wait to start servicing such vehicles.

“Thank God we like challenges, because fixing these vehicles will require special training and special tools, and dealerships excel at that,” says Jackson, CEO of AutoNation Inc., the largest dealership chain in the U.S.

“Taking on this complexity and serving our customers are things we know how to do best,” he says. “The only ones who can handle it, tool up for it and meet the challenge are authorized dealers.”

Independent auto shops eventually will catch up with the servicing of alternative-powertrain vehicles, “but right now it’s a whole new ball game, with dealers having the edge,” Jackson tells Ward’s.

As rarely before seen in the auto-dealer world, sales people and technicians are being challenged to sell and service cars with vastly different technologies than the internal-combustion engines that have prevailed for more than a century.

The new technology is “something that happens once in a hundred years,” says Jackson, who started in the auto industry as a Mercedes-Benz dealership mechanic.

He eventually went on to run a Mercedes dealership, then serve as president of Mercedes-Benz USA before becoming head of AutoNation.

“Servicing these advanced-technology vehicles will certainly require a new skill set, but I applaud auto makers for really emphasizing and providing the training,” says dealer Robert Thibodeau of Bob Thibodeau Ford in Center Line, MI.

He and fellow Ford dealers will start selling the Focus EV later this year.

“A lot of the technician training is online, rather than having to send them to classes,” Thibodeau says. “The online training is huge. There’s also the ability to talk to hot lines. The manufacturers have really stepped up on training.”

He doesn’t anticipate major issues in servicing vehicles with alternative-fuel engines. When hybrids first debuted in the U.S. 11 years ago, some detractors predicted they would be hard to fix.

“But servicing hybrids hasn’t been difficult,” Thibodeau says. “They are relatively easy to work on.”

They also have proven to be durable despite initial speculation about the cost of potentially premature battery replacements, says David Champion, head ofConsumer Reports magazine’s automotive test center.

EVs and hybrids are getting their share of attention at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. introduced three new versions of its Prius hybrid, including smaller and larger models than the existing midsize sedan. Also being shown is a Prius hybrid plug-in that goes on sale next year.

The Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV won the North American Car of the Year award at the show.

The Volt and Nissan Leaf EV, together, have received more plaudits than expected, creating buzz in showrooms where the oft-asked question is, “When are you going to get one?”

Dealers are getting their sales and service staffs up to speed on electric-powertrain technology.

Sales people are boning up so they can respond knowledgeably to inquiries. Service technicians are training to service vehicles such as the Volt, Leaf and upcoming EV versions of the Ford Focus, Smart Fortwo, Mini Cooper and Mitsubishi iMiEV.

“We’ve got to be able to provide answers to customers who want an EV,” says Jeff Cappo, owner of 17 Nissan, Toyota and Honda stores in Michigan and Tennessee. “The Insight and Civic Hybrid are our new-tech small cars at the Honda dealerships, but the Leaf is giving them a run.”

He adds: “We’re prepping our sales, Internet and service teams for clarifying calls and inquiries, especially reassuring them on range-anxiety issues.”

Cappo is ordering charging terminals at his stores, “because they’ll be a drawing card as e-cars spread across the country.”

Still, there is much speculation that, for all the attention EVs and advanced hybrids get, they only will attract a limited number of customers for the time being.

Jackson cites surveys in which many consumers express a willingness to buy fuel-efficient green vehicles. But he views those polls skeptically.

“We have customers that, if you give them an illuminated cupholder that heats and cools beverages, they’ll give up five miles per gallon,” he says.

He likens dealerships selling both conventional and alternative-fuel vehicles to a donut shop selling donuts and broccoli. “Five percent of your customers may buy broccoli, but the rest are going to get donuts. So we may have some difficulty selling fuel-efficient small cars.”

But many industry and government leaders see the alternative-fuel vehicles as playing a big part in getting auto makers to meet federally mandated average fuel economy targets of 35.5 mpg (6.6L/100km) by 2016.

“We have to rethink powertrain,” says Eri Fedewa, director-global powertrain and component forecasts for the consultancy IHS Automotive.

Although much of the U.S. fuel-efficiency movement touts energy conservation and cleaner air, “this is about energy security, about using resources within your economy,” he says. “It is being sold as saving the planet, which is great, but it mainly is about money and job growth.”

The upcoming Washington Auto Show this month once again will host a Green Car Summit in which panelists discuss how available and developing technologies can help the nation achieve petroleum independence.

“Significant focus will be directed toward electric drive at the Green Car Summit, a reflection of the tremendous effort now being made to develop and sell battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids using electric drive,” says panel moderator Ron Cogan of the Green Car Journal.

With Mac Gordon

sfinlay@wardsauto.com