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Meet the auto repair professor pivoting to EVs

Meet the auto repair professor pivoting to EVs


Demand for qualified EV technicians is poised to skyrocket

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With the number of electric vehicles on the roads poised to skyrocket this decade, millions of drivers are going to need auto mechanics who can fix their new batteries-on-wheels. But today, the vast majority of auto repair professionals do not have the training or equipment to repair EVs, which are anatomically very different from their gas-powered predecessors.

As a result, many early EV adopters have been forced to rely on vehicle manufacturers and dealerships to service their cars — a situation that can drive up repair costs and lead to frustratingly long wait times

Ruth Morrison, who chairs the Automotive Technology Department at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), wants to change that. Morrison, who was an auto mechanic before she began teaching in 2003, took a course focused on hybrid and EV repair back in 2009. She’s wanted to teach the subject ever since. And with SMCC recently receiving funds from the state for additional workforce training, she now has the opportunity. 

Last month, SMCC did its first run of a new class designed to teach mechanics to work on hybrid and electric vehicles — the first in Maine, to Morrison’s knowledge, and one of a relatively small number of such programs nationwide. The Verge spoke with Morrison to learn more about what her course offers and the fast-evolving EV repair landscape. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Maddie: We’re on the cusp of a huge electric vehicle boom in the United States and also globally. What are the implications of that for independent auto repair? What new skills are mechanics going to have to learn?

Ruth: [Electric vehicles] have different components. They’re going to require different equipment and tools, and technicians are going to need to get trained in how to use them. The safety concerns are one issue, but then, the equipment we use in this class is specific to diagnosing the electric machines [motors or generators], the power inverters, and the batteries. And if independent shops want to get into repairing these components, rather than just putting in a whole new unit, then they’re going to need to get training in this. 

Which is different from what the dealerships have been doing. Dealerships will generally replace an entire battery rather than try and balance it or replace the cells and balance it after that. As there’s more of these vehicles that are outside of warranty, and people are buying them used, I would think that the consumers are going to want to spend less money and not have to foot the bill for the entire component, just get it repaired. And then, if somebody is buying a used car, it’s nice to know what condition it’s in before buying it. So there’s some predictive maintenance that can be done to see how the motor is, kind of like doing a compression test on a gasoline engine or a diesel engine. If you want to know how worn the engine is before you buy the car, you can do some sort of predictive testing. And for electric vehicles, there’s also predictive testing that can be done.

Maddie: How did your idea for a course focused on training independent mechanics on electric vehicles first come about?

Ruth: Well, I first took a class in [2009] with Dr. Quarto, who came and did training for us, and I wanted to start offering that training to our students. [Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Quarto is a former General Motors engineer who teaches EV and hybrid vehicle repair through a company called FutureTech.] And there’s special tools that we had to buy. There was an expense involved, and I didn’t get a lot of support for getting tools up in order to do that. But now the Maine Community College System has received support from the governor of Maine, and she wants us to be training in green jobs, and so now we have the ability to buy the equipment and get ourselves trained, and that’s really opened the door for us. I’ve been struggling to fit this into our budget for a long time.

Maddie: As you developed the course, were there any other programs you modeled it after or took inspiration from? 

Ruth: Well, what happened was Siemens was involved with a chain called VIP Tires and Service, which is up here in the Northeast, and VIP had approached Siemens for guidance on getting their technicians trained in this area. So they [Siemens] approached me in summer of 2019 and asked us if we could train the technicians. And so then I started working directly with VIP, and the first thing I thought of was this course that I had taken with Dr. Quarto years ago. I looked around for other curriculum rather than reinventing one, and I liked his the best. So we have modeled it after the training his company offers.

Maddie: Did you find many other EV repair courses out there?

Ruth: There’s a few. I know that there’s one in Worcester, Massachusetts called ACDC. [Editor’s note: The Verge was unable to find data on how many EV and hybrid repair training programs exist nationally. Rich Benoit, co-founder of the Tesla-focused repair shop The Electrified Garage, told The Verge in an email he suspects there are “under 50 dedicated EV repair programs in the US.]

Maddie: Walk me through the nuts and bolts of how your course works?

Ruth: So when we first rolled this out for VIP, it was [also] a “train the trainer” event for me and my partner, Joe. What we did was use the web-based training from FutureTech — all of us did that web-based training first — then Dr. Quarto came and did a week-long hands-on class. That was back in December. And I think as we go forward, I’m going to break that big class down into smaller pieces. Because it was a lot of web-based training before we got to the hands-on. If we can break it down into systems, I think that would be a lot easier to offer to the general public. 

Maddie: Can you highlight a few things mechanics learn in the course?

Ruth: Sure. We went through the safety systems first — understanding how those worked and checking them to make sure they were working properly. And then, we did battery testing and balancing or reconditioning. So you can take an older battery and recondition it, and it’ll be much better for many years. And then we looked at motor generators and diagnosing those; we looked at power inverters and the air conditioning compressors. Pretty much all of the high voltage systems.

Maddie: When it comes to battery balancing, is the idea that we can take batteries from older vehicles and do a heart transplant into a newer vehicle? Or is it more about rehabilitating the battery to remain in the same vehicle?

Ruth: Both. So, somebody who drives a Prius might notice after five years that their gas mileage has gone down significantly. And that’s because the gas engine is powering the powertrain rather than the electric motor because the battery doesn’t have enough power anymore. So that battery in that vehicle could be reconditioned and bring it back up to its original condition. And then the gas mileage would go back to 45 [mpg] or whatever it started out at. And then also, one of the things we did during our class was get a couple batteries from salvage yards and reconditioned them.

Maddie: What kind of feedback did you receive on the course from the folks who took it?

Ruth: The company VIP, the technicians learned a lot. They’re ready to set up these services at their shops. They have enough hybrids, Priuses coming through their shops on a regular basis. They could be selling these services — the maintenance services, the predictive maintenance, and the repair services. It’s applicable knowledge that they can start offering for their customers.

Maddie: Do you have additional courses planned for later this year?

Ruth: Yeah, with the grant, we need to start training more people. I think we said it was going to be about a hundred people. By the time we were done in the next year or so, we’re going to start offering courses outside of our regular curriculum. So that would mostly be in the summer and maybe during our winter break again next year.

Maddie: The right-to-repair movement has played a pretty big role in opening up the independent auto repair landscape, but some repair advocates are concerned that with the EV transition, new repair restrictions could start to emerge. Are the mechanics you’re talking with bringing up any particular challenges repairing electric cars? Are there restrictions on these vehicles, or vehicle data that they’re not getting from manufacturers, that’s making repair harder? Is that something you’re concerned about in the future?

Ruth: I haven’t run into a problem yet. But yes, I mean, it’s always a problem. As an automotive technician, it’s always a problem to try and get the substantial information that you need and the diagnostic information. [EVs] are going to have the same challenge for sure.