Craig Van Batenburg began his career as an auto mechanic in 1970 after falling in love with the internal combustion engine.
But for several years, the 67-year-old from Massachusetts has been warning about its imminent demise. As a wave of electric vehicles quickly approaches, experts say, it could wash away a large portion of a skilled labor group that has been around for decades — the neighborhood auto mechanic.
The reason is simple: Unlike gas-powered engines, electric engines don’t require oil changes, have far fewer moving parts and rarely break down, eliminating much of the maintenance that repair shops rely on. The latest electric vehicles can be serviced using parts purchased online or fixed remotely through over-the-air updates.
The U.S. auto repair industry employs about 750,000 workers, nearly four times the number of people employed by the coal-mining industry. Though they are increasingly skilled and tech-savvy, many experts say, they are not prepared for the end of gas-powered transportation.
“People are freaking out,” Van Batenburg said, noting that some of the resistance to change is strongest in the Midwest and propelled by unfounded rumors of technicians being electrocuted by electric vehicles. “Ninety percent of our industry has done nothing — absolutely nothing to prepare. They just turn the hybrids and EVs away and say, ‘We don’t work on those cars, go back to Ford or Toyota.’ The fear factor is huge.”
Whether it’s Volvo and GM’s decision to stop making gas-powered cars, Uber’s rush to develop a fleet of autonomous vehicles, electric cabs or Tesla’s rise to relevance, the future appears to be coming into greater focus with each passing month. Van Batenburg thinks that Volvo’s announcement was the unofficial “point of no return.” He said he’s not the only one who felt the ground shift beneath his feet. Van Batenburg, who also owns a career-development company that prepares businesses for the arrival of electric and hybrid vehicles, said that before the announcement
, his schedule was booked about three months in advance — now it’s more than a year.
Independent auto shops — of which there are more than 160,000 in the United States — have always relied on minor repairs, such as oil changes and new tires, to get customers in the front door. To many a car owner’s surprise, one minor repair often leads to a series of others, giving auto shops a chance to make more money and establish a rapport with customers that can serve them for years.
Electric vehicles threaten to upend this income stream.
Unlike gasoline cars, electric vehicles require no traditional oil changes, fuel filters, spark plug replacements or emission checks. In most cases, you can wave goodbye to changing timing belts, differential fluid and transmission fluid. EV brake pad replacements are less frequent because regenerative braking returns energy to the battery, significantly reducing wear on mechanical brakes because they’re used less to slow the vehicle.
Analysts estimate that the repair bills for EVs would be lower and less frequent than the tabs of their gas-guzzling counterparts.
The Chevy Bolt’s maintenance schedule requires owners to rotate tires every 7,500 miles, replace the cabin air filter every 22,500 miles and have the coolant flushed every 150,000, according to Chevrolet. “And . . . yeah, that’s it,” as one writer recently mused. Some of those parts can be purchased online for less than $20.
Van Batenburg said that during the seven years he’s owned a Nissan Leaf, the car has required about one hour’s worth of maintenance total, which he performed himself. His maintenance costs, however extraordinary sounding, aren’t unusual, according to a random sampling of EV owners.
Over the past six years that he’s driven a Nissan Leaf, Ron Swanson, president of the Electric Auto Association’s North Texas chapter, has had his tires rotated and had a single air filter replaced, spending less than $50, he said.
“We will always need technicians for electric vehicles because all cars have accidents and sustain damage,” he said. “But I think there will be job losses among technicians because there’s just not enough maintenance to go around.”
What does that all mean? There aren’t official estimates, but Van Batenburg predicts that in the next 20 years, two-thirds of the nation’s auto technicians will fall victim to the electric and hybrid revolution — a “mass die-off” in biological terms. But others are far more optimistic about auto technicians chances for survival.
Over the past decade, they reason, vehicles have become better built and far more complex, with dozens of computers interacting on board and millions of lines of computer code. The most progressive auto shops and franchises are already immersed in tech, using iPads, laptops and Google Hangouts to streamline work and keep up with a rapidly changing industry. Businesses that have already begun retraining their employees, they reason, should be able to make the shift to electric. There will always be some work, they say, because tires can last only so many miles, shock absorbers and struts have only so many movements of life in them — and even Tesla batteries don’t last forever.
“We already do a lot more work with a laptop than we do with a wrench anymore,” Bill Moss, the owner of EuroService Automotive, a family-owned repair business in Warrenton, Va., that has begun training employees to work on electric cars. “Some of this is nothing new.”
Jeffrey Cox, vice president of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association, believes auto repair shops will be ready for electric vehicles because they have another 10 or 15 years to prepare.
“I think the introduction of electric vehicles into the mainstream is a longer road than most people think,” he said. “The market share that they’re going to have will be small for the first five years and then it will be another five years before their warranties end they start being resold and needing work.”
But to thrive, optimists like Cox say, the auto technician of the future will need to become some combination of your company’s IT support guy with a car-lover’s mind, someone with the ability to change tires and operate diagnostic and scanning equipment to root out problems involving computer networks and data processing.
Even for repair shops on the cutting edge — often in urban areas where hybrid cars are already commonplace — survival may not be a matter of willingness to adapt, but by how quickly a business can reasonably do so. Though he doesn’t foresee his industry being wiped out by electric cars, Moss said he expects electric technology to arrive much faster than most analysts predict. “Technology compresses time,” he likes to say, which is why he thinks people should be worried about 2025 — not 2040.
His bold prediction: Some neighborhood service stations will still exist then, but he expects them to be filled with more charging ports than gas hoses. The implications of that rapid transformation, of course, are hard to predict.
“It wasn’t 10 years ago that automakers thought they had to put phones in cars and then they would build the car and by the time the car was sold the phone was outdated,” Moss said. “Don’t forget: Technology compresses time.”