Powering up your future business

Understanding the impact of the shift towards EVs and hybrids on your business will help you make a success of the change

By Neil Pattermore |

Published:  04 January, 2020

Life never stands still and this also applies to vehicle design and the subsequent diagnostic and repair requirements. Any workshop business that does not evolve will, sooner or later, fail. The pace of change in vehicle design has been exponential in the last 10 years, across vehicle systems such as the development of driver assist systems, but equally for powertrain designs.
Part of the powertrain development has been for engine management, such as direct injection for petrol engines, cylinder de-activation and Atkinson cycle technologies, but these have been developments of existing internal combustion designs. There have also been different fuels, such as hydrogen, but again, evolution, rather than revolution.
The real change has been the rapid increase in the number of electrically powered cars, partly due to the development of both battery technology and volumes, with the subsequent reduction in prices, making vehicles both more affordable and useable, but the most significant influence has come from the political environment to move away from the reliance on fossil fuels.

Although electric vehicles are far from a new idea – the first (small scale) electric vehicles were developed in the 1830s, with viable vehicles being manufactured from the very early 1900s, including the first hybrid vehicles. Although the concept is not new and workshops have dealt with low voltage ‘electrics’ in the form of starting, ignition and lighting (SIL) batteries for over a hundred years, today’s electric powertrains pose significantly different challenges.
These challenges fall into several distinct categories, some of which you can directly do something about, while others which are outside of your direct control.
Firstly, doing nothing to develop your business is not the answer – the expansion of electrically powered vehicles is here to stay and the key is to understand what you need to do and when you need to do it. For the workshop, from the technical perspective, it is principally a competency issue that involves having the right equipment and the skills of the technician. Both of these will depend on how deeply you feel is necessary to be able to handle the level of work on the electrification of the vehicle’s powertrain and to some extent, this will be dictated by the demographics of your location, and your customer base.
There are several new vehicles which are now entering the market that use 48-volt systems, so these are not so challenging, but the existing and bulk of the future electrically powered vehicles will have much higher voltage systems and this is a key tipping point. To work on these systems imposes a duty of care on the business to ensure that technicians are not asked to work on potentially lethal systems without the appropriate equipment, protection and skill levels. For the workshop, this imposes a compliance for both the Electricity at Work Regulation (EWR) 1989 and the Safety at Work Act 1979.

However, the level of involvement in these higher voltage systems will also dictate the level of investment. This is illustrated by one vehicle manufacturer’s policy of implementing three levels in their main dealer networks for their hybrid or fully electric vehicles – level one is purely vehicle maintenance, level two is repair and replacement of components and level three is working on live systems.    
In both Canada and Germany, compulsory training and accreditation of all vehicle repair technicians is mandatory.
For independent workshops in the UK, this three step approach would also allow the workshop to adopt an ‘evolutionary’ approach to investment, starting with some basic equipment and then building on this with the more specialist tools and equipment as the business develops, but I would strongly suggest that the technical training should be at a higher level from the outset to ensure that the technician fully understands the wider design and functionality of electrically powered vehicle systems to know the boundaries of where the work on a vehicle changes across the three levels – a good case of avoiding that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. Once your business has the competencies, then it is about promoting this to existing customers who at some stage will be hybrid or electric vehicle owners, or to those who already are, but don’t know that you can handle their vehicles – so if you make the investment, shout about it.

On another positive point, the European Commission have confirmed that electric vehicles still need to support access to their in-vehicle systems for repair and maintenance – clarifying the mis-held belief that if there were no emissions, then no OBD connector needed to be fitted.
These are the things that you may be able to control about electrically powered vehicles, but there are other aspects that are outside of your control which will impact your business. The most obvious is the extended service intervals and the reduced level of work which electrically powered vehicles need. Fairly obviously, this directly relates to no engine components on fully electrically powered vehicles, but even if tyre wear may increase due to their increased weight, their brakes last longer due to the capturing of energy when slowing down to re-charge the battery.
Electric vehicles will require new skillsets for their repair, away from mechanical repairs into more electrical and electronic orientated repairs. This will change the profile of the technician that is needed and also create an increased dependency on downloading software updates. However, these may be increasingly over-the-air updates from the vehicle manufacturer, without the need for a vehicle to come into a workshop. Just think about what TESLA are already doing. The way that the vehicles are purchased is also changing – especially for electric vehicles – as there is a separation of the cost of the vehicle and the renting of the battery to avoid the twin problems of the higher price of new electric vehicles and the concerns around the cost of replacing a battery as the vehicle ages.
Additionally, there will be changes in the ownership of the vehicle as ‘mobility as a service’ develops, but this may be an opportunity for independent workshops to provide competitive local repair and maintenance services to these new mobility operators, but only if the workshop is competent to do so – and so there is both a threat and an opportunity presented by electrically powered vehicles.


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