Blog: Tech tok - time is running out to find the mechanics to look after EVs

Ralph Hosier

22.1.2021

Time is ticking. As electric car and hybrid car sales rapidly accelerate we’re heading straight into a problem no one seems to be addressing: there simply aren’t enough qualified technicians to maintain and repair them. And this isn’t just scaremongering - estimates from the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) suggest that we need to train about 50,000 techs in the next ten years to comfortably care and repair for our electrified vehicles. 

And that, my friends, is a mammoth task. Luckily, electric vehicles need much less maintenance than anything with a traditional internal combustion engine: the brakes generally last longer thanks to regenerative braking, the coolant doesn’t get as hot and degrades more slowly, there are simply less components to wear and tear. But there are still plenty of things that need to be looked after. 

Coolant, brake fluid, gearbox oil and the like, all have finite lives, stuff like steering joints and wheel bearings still wear out. It’s still a machine, and machines need maintenance - plus it would be really helpful if your local garage could service the battery pack and replace any cells that start letting the car down, keeping your electric car in tip-top health.

As far as that goes, servicing an electric vehicle (EV) need not be difficult, but there are potentially dangers for the unwary. For instance, your air conditioning system pump will be directly driven by a high voltage motor, so the air con system oil needs to be safe with high voltages. Many EVs have battery packs that are cooled by air drawn from the cabin, and when fast charging the car control system may turn the air conditioning system on to help it draw cool air into the pack. 

But the aircon does more than cool the air, it dries it out, something vital to prevent components in the battery pack corroding or arcing (jumping a spark) across damp contacts. As a strange bit of cause-and-effect, that means that if the windscreen seals are damaged when a replacement window is fitted, or the door seals gets damaged and rain water gets in, then there is a danger over time that the battery pack will suffer damage. Batteries don’t like even a little bit of water.

EVs still share some common parts with petrol cars

So there’s a lot more to looking after an EV than some people realise, but once you know these things the job of maintaining an EV and keeping it running at best efficiency is relatively straight forward. So what are we doing about upskilling a workforce ready to deal with the new age of electrification? Well, the industry is recruiting training providers and rolling out a massive plan to get us ready for the big change. Something I’m personally involved in: I’ve turned over part of my workshop to help train anyone who wants to know about this subject, and many other companies are following suit.

The thing is, we’re not just talking about new cars here. Proper EV maintenance will become increasingly important as the number of older EV and hybrid cars increases. New cars are only affordable to the few - especially expensive pure EVs - and most people rely on good used cars for their daily transport. Take a decent look around: plenty of us depend on cars that are over ten years old because they’re affordable and still have plenty of life left in them.

To keep older EV being useful for a long time we need a network of garages that can upgrade and fix batteries and other crucial parts of the system. Then there is no reason why an EV wouldn’t last as long as any other car, especially as now we know that the batteries and drivetrains are more robust than the original - and fairly pessimistic - projections. 

Will we see Leafs and Zoes at ten, twenty or thirty years old? I hope so. There is a longer term opportunity too: battery technology is advancing at a rapid pace and in time it might well be practical to replace the cells in the battery pack with better ones (adapting the battery management system to suit) giving older cars longer range and faster charging. 

The old batteries can still be used in power walls and second-life applications, and when they are finally no real use they can be recycled.Which leads me to another area we can improve: recycling. Battery recycling is another industry that needs help, mainly because currently the only factories recycling these batteries are far away - which is obviously not ideal. Despite the process being relatively simple, these factories need to run at large scale to be profitable, so as demand increases they become more appealing - especially if we can get something a bit more local. And to feed the recycling we need scrap yards to have the right skills to safely dismantle high voltage systems. Or it might get a bit sparky down at the local scrapper.

Batteries can be reused or recycled - carefully

It goes even further than that - right the way across the chain. Paint shops and crash repair companies need to have someone skilled in EV work, because if you have to remove a charge point from a body panel to fix or paint it then you need to be able to do so safely. The fire service or police attending a car crash having to make the high voltage system safe, and even a valeter working near the fans needs to have some basic knowledge, because with some EVs they switch on even when the ignition is off. 

Knowledge is so important. And as we, as consumers, end up with an EV as our mode of transport, the humble motorist can benefit from knowing what to do in an emergency, what to do if there is a fault with your car, even how to tow an EV safely. The basic truth being that the more people know about EV technology the more it will be accepted and available to the masses for everyone to enjoy. Knowledge is power, they say, and maybe now that power will be measured in kW.

Body shops will need to know how to repair electric cars too

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