How this Utah native turned his passion for EVs into 40 million YouTube views

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding 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 latecomer in 2004,” said Kelly, a professor of automotive engineering at Weber State University. It was then that he had his first opportunity to disassemble a Prius and see how it integrated electrical power into an internal combustion engine car.

The second wave came a few years later when YouTube started the video revolution and Kelly started uploading instructional videos about hybrid and electric cars.

“That was a huge attractor,” he said.

Understatement. The videos Kelly uploaded to WeberAuto’s YouTube channel have received more than 40 million views. The channel itself has 330,000 subscribers.

And he keeps adding more. In a recent series, he disassembled the engines of 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 cases and see what we can see. …”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University automotive engineering students, from left, Cameron Goff, Kevin Camarena and Alex Leigh laugh while looking for parts on a Tesla Model SP100D on the Layton campus, March 19, 2017 September 2022.

All of a sudden, a guy in Utah is training the world in the next generation of transportation.

“We have people from the Middle East who are reaching out to us,” said Jessica Slater, Kelly’s department head.

Weber has developed a curriculum to train technicians on all aspects of hybrid and electric maintenance. All 250 students in the automotive engineering department receive EV and hybrid training, and it offers certifications to others who complete two online courses and a week-long “boot camp” at the school’s Davis County campus in Layton.

So far, Kelly has taught 18 boot camps, and it turns out he trains the coaches. “More than half are university teachers from all over the country and the world. … They’re 15 to 17 years behind us.”

“Volts and Bolts” discussion on the Weber campus

The Salt Lake Tribune, Rocky Mountain Power and Weber State University will host “Volts and Bolts,” a community conversation about EV adoption and its impact on the automotive engineering profession. The September 29 discussion will be joined by Jessica Slater, director of Weber State’s automotive technology division, 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 at 4:00 p.m. in Building D2, Room 110 on Weber State’s Davis County campus in Layton. A live stream is hosted on 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 been using a wheelchair for nine years after several years on crutches.

He spends many hours producing the videos while teaching classes. “Since I’m in a wheelchair, there aren’t many things I can do for fun. It’s my passion and my hobby,” he said, adding, “I’m not staying long. I’ll come earlier.”

He also relies on student assistants for the hard-to-reach jobs on the cars. A current assistant, Nash Stephenson, said Kelly only needed his help occasionally. “If he can get it, he gets it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joseph Potempa, 21, of Huntington Beach, Calif., ensures no voltage is registered on a Nissan Leaf EV after a manual service disconnect was performed, September 21, 2022. Program for Weber State University Automotive Engineering is at the forefront of developing curriculum to teach mechanics how to work on electric and hybrid vehicles.

“Great,” Stephenson said of his work as Kelly’s assistant. Like many other students, he came to Weber from abroad because of the program’s growing reputation. He completed a two-year auto tech program in California and joined Weber to complete a four-year degree. “It’s really eye-opening because it’s different than what I’ve learned before.”

Still a love of burning

Stephenson knows the electronics industry will drive the industry forward, but he hasn’t lost his passion for pistons. He drives a 1996 Buick Roadmaster, a V8-powered gas burner that’s four years his senior. “Cars have always been important in the family.” His father runs a mobile auto detailing business and his grandfather ran an auto scrapyard. He said that when he can no longer drive the Buick, he will keep it in his garage forever.

Ruben Rodriguez took a similar path, completing a two-year program in Texas before joining Weber to “broaden my horizons.” He recognizes that improvements in electric vehicles will drive the market. “Technology is like a rabbit. It bounces.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University automotive engineering student Nicholas Bottaro winces as he endures short honks from a Chevy Volt while performing a manual service disconnect on September 21, 2022.

Rodriguez said EV maintenance relies more on what computers reveal and less on a technician’s senses. Working on gas-powered cars, he remembers the days when computer diagnostics weren’t as accurate as listening to the engine running or smelling unburned fuel in the exhaust.

Slater, the head of the Automotive Engineering department, has been advising new students for years. “They come with a passion for horsepower.” Once they’re accepted into the program, they understand that electric can be high-performing. “Once they’re exposed, they get excited.”

She believes the announcement of an all-electric Dodge Charger concept car last month will change many people’s perspectives. “It’s a well-known muscle car.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nicholas Bottaro, an automotive engineering student at Weber State University, laughs with instructor John Kelly while performing a manual service stop on September 21, 2022.

Like everyone else, the school faces the constant challenge of getting new electric vehicles. Schools get special prizes that can push them to the end of the line. They’ve been waiting more than a year to get their hands on 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 purchased equipment and developed curricula for 14 Northern Utah high schools and four applied technology centers. Slater has data showing that employers hire about 400 students a year from Weber’s programs and from programs at the technology centers.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kade Larson, a student in Weber State University’s Automotive Technology program, performs a manual service disconnect on an electric vehicle on September 21, 2022.

She said the school is also planning to launch a new four-year degree in “Automotive Electrical Engineering” that addresses a critical request from automakers for more expertise in electrical engineering.

Safety comes first and always

For the high schools, the education emphasizes safety. Secondary school teachers are not much exposed to the high voltage systems which can be deadly if mishandled.

Safety means, among other things, wearing lots of gloves. When working on a system electrified by car batteries, technicians wear at least two layers of gloves, one of which is a layer of rubber that acts as an electrical insulator. Some also add an inner lining. These and non-conductive tool sets are in bright orange tool boxes that Weber shares with the other schools.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Exposure to a vehicle’s high voltage systems can be fatal if mishandled. Safety means, among other things, wearing lots of gloves. Students in the Weber State University automotive engineering program wear three layers of gloves for safety, September 21, 2022.

Safety is also the focus of the first online course offered in conjunction with the boot camps. Kelly said knowing about safety and all the new systems in electric cars will be a bigger challenge for auto technicians than buying specialized equipment. “If I ran a car dealership or a shop, I would download all the manuals.”

And if you get stuck, you can always find Kelly on YouTube.

Tim Fitzpatrick is a renewable energy reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains overall control of editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.

https://www.sltrib.com/renewable-energy/2022/09/25/how-this-utahn-turned-his/ How this Utah native turned his passion for EVs into 40 million YouTube views

Justin Scacco

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