Staying Relevant – Mechanics gear up for the future
2019-02-28 | 7 min read
When I was a kid, it was a big deal, in fact, a thrill, when my mom would allow me to check the engine oil in her little Mini Minor. Any sign of the engine oil level running low or the dipstick showing clumpy black coagulants meant a trip to the mechanic’s workshop, which somehow held a fascination for me to see the underbellies of cars perched on their greasy hoists. Plus, I always loved riding with my mom. Back then, besides hand-cranked windows, we settled with side window panes to channel an extra stream of directed breeze to cool our sweaty heads. The only thing remotely modern in the car was the AM/FM radio with a dusty cassette player slot.
Fast-forward to 2019 and a regular maintenance visit to my mechanic Ganesh. This is a much bigger mom-and-pop mechanic’s workshop than where mom used to go. The same smell of grease still wafts through the air, but in addition to the wrenches and more modern-looking car hoists, a new piece of equipment – a laptop – has joined the workshop’s organized mess of paraphernalia.
“That toy is a ‘no choice’ investment costing me a couple thousand,” quipped Ganesh. “We are like doctors these days. If your heart rate is irregular, the doctor will diagnose your condition with a battery of tests. If your Check Engine light comes on, this new tool here runs the automotive diagnostics to help us trace and pinpoint the root cause.”
Traditionally, mom-and-pop car workshops rely on skills and experience of the mechanics. You can report that your engine is ‘making a funny sound’ and a mechanic worth one’s salt, or spanner, would probably be able to track down the cause after taking your car for a spin. But in the silent world of electric vehicle (EV) engines, the mechanic is going to need much more than the gift of a trained ear.
The traditional income from brake pad and air conditioner filter replacements and tire alignments will continue; local mechanics also know they must gear up now to tackle new e-mobility demands when the fleets of hybrid EV (HEV) or full EV cars transition from OEM dealers’ workshops to the automotive maintenance aftermarket in a few short years.
The pressure is palpable - either upgrade one’s skills and training to stay relevant, and thrive in the new world of e-mobility and autonomous driving, or fade out with the old mainly-mechatronic car. Many, like my mechanic, grew into their job, on-the-job, some without formal vocational training.
A casual checklist on new knowledge that mechanics need to arm themselves with would include sensitive devices like blind-spot detecting radar sensors, or in-vehicle systems for emergency calls such as eCall or ERA-Glonass, which are already becoming common place across Europe.
For instance, in an after-crash repair, the mechanic will need to know exactly where and how to replace and reposition damaged radar modules, right down to the angle of the sensor placement. They will need to be aware of some strict ‘no-no’s’, like applying plastic fillers for cosmetic repairs of cracks or dents, as these affect the bumper fascia thickness, and consequently, the function of the radar sensors. Then comes post-repair calibration checks to ensure the sensors are working well. It’s not just new skills that are required, new test equipment will also be needed.
This is a steep learning curve for many mechanics, not just at the individual and workshop level, but across an industry that comprises many small business enterprises providing vocational jobs. Conventional vocational institutions offer skills training in engine, suspension, steering, transmission and braking systems. However, there are gaps that these institutions are now trying to bridge. Many of the syllabi on electrical systems are confined to those operating mechatronic parts rather than HEV or EV powertrains. This will have to change as the industry realizes that the world of e-mobility, connected cars and autonomous vehicles is upon us. Worldskill, an international organization advocating advancement of vocational skills, listed among its comprehensive Automobile Technology syllabus, future-relevant topics such as:
•Hybrid/electric vehicle systems
•How each system is interconnected and can have an effect on other systems
•How sensors and information are shared between various management systems
Many car OEMs also include upgrading skills training for new technology for affiliated workshops. Others, such as data service providers that supply information to independent car workshops on how to diagnose and repair various OEM car models, also see new business opportunities. They are expanding their lists of information to include instructions on how to maintain and repair electric powertrains, on-board DC-DC conversion systems, high-voltage cables and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, among other components that keep the HEV or EV humming along smoothly and efficiently.
For car aficionados like Ganesh, the future is both challenging and exciting. Ganesh, who prides himself on knowing what’s bothering each car ‘by the purr or shudder of its engine’, is already making plans to train himself and his team. “We grew up, and will probably grow old in this industry, so we either upgrade or become like the dinosaurs,” he said.