As more British drivers switch to electric vehicles, are garages and mechanics ready for the change?
Electric vehicles are powering ahead in the UK, fuelled by government support and consumer interest. But what will the changing market mean for the automotive repair sector?
EVs have much in their favour. The environmental benefits are well known, while upfront purchase costs are set to tumble in the next few years as battery tech improves. The sector also has official backing, with the government announcing last November that petrol and diesel cars would no longer be sold in the country after 2030. Research by the energy watchdog Ofgem found that one in four British consumers planned to buy an electric car in the next five years.
But for garages and mechanics, there’s a great deal to consider.
EVs have an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine, which means they have far fewer moving parts that can go wrong. That’s great news for consumers, as EVs cost at least 30% less to service and maintain, according to research by data company KeeResources.
But it puts a whole chunk of revenue at risk for the automotive repair sector, says Professor Peter Wells, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School, who specialises in business and sustainability. While motorists must still put their car through an annual MoT, it’s easier for an EV to pass, he says.
“You’re doing away with the oil change, the filter change, exhaust changes, and you’re not worrying about emissions, so that takes away a big part of the problem. But it also takes away a big part of the revenue potential for the garages.”
When batteries do fail, they can be difficult to repair. Mechanics need specialist training, given the voltages involved, though Wells says it’s more a different type of risk than an increased danger.
“Petrol and diesel vehicles also come with risks, especially of fire and fumes, which are extremely toxic. It’s more a change of risk,” he says.
Training for mechanics takes place in-house at manufacturers or at technical colleges, such as Coleg Cambria in Wrexham, an EV centre of excellence, which has its own battery simulator so trainees can learn safely without risking electric shocks.
But according to the RAC, just 5% of the UK’s 200,000 mechanics are qualified to work on electric cars. “We’re definitely behind the curve,” says Wells, noting that mechanics face lots presentations and courses to get up to speed. “There’s not enough of them around, especially given that brands like Vauxhall are saying their entire fleet will be electric by 2028. We haven’t got long.”
And it’s not just about training up mechanics; working on EVs also requires specialist tools and equipment. “You’ve got to be able to drop these battery packs out and they are big, heavy pieces of kit, much more so than an engine,” Wells says.
So will garages begin to specialise in EVs alone, or upskill for the growing sector while retaining their traditional focuses? A bit of both, says Wells. Petrol and diesel cars will still be around, “though the big debate is for how long. We’re already seeing specialist electric used car sales, and I would expect to see more of that on the servicing side”.
The changing breakdown landscape
When it comes to breakdowns, EVs can suffer from many of the same problems that afflict any car, says Sarah Winward-Kotecha, the RAC’s director of electric vehicles. These include punctured tyres and other wheel-related problems, or running down the 12-volt battery by leaving the lights on. These low-level problems can be sorted at the roadside under the RAC’s regular membership; you don’t need specialist EV cover.
“But it is important drivers realise that unlike a conventionally-powered car, you can’t just tow an EV (or a hybrid for that matter) – it needs to be lifted, often with all wheels off the ground,” she says. Normally that would mean waiting for a flatbed truck, though the RAC is fitting more of its patrol fans with “All-Wheels-Up” technology that can recover the majority of EVs.
Thousands of drivers run out of petrol and diesel every year. Could EVs suffer a similar problem, frequently running out of charge? It’s too early to say, according to Winward-Kotecha.
“What we do know is that sadly some drivers are reaching public charge points and discovering they’re out of order and they don’t have enough charge left to get to a working one,” she says. Sometimes drivers also have problems charging at home overnight, she notes, with the RAC planning to offer van-mounted EV chargers in about a fifth of its patrol vans next year.
At present EVs represent a fraction of the company’s 2 million plus callouts each year, says Winward-Kotecha. While it’s too soon to know for sure whether they break down less, it certainly doesn’t appear they’re prone to more problems. “With a lot fewer moving parts than the drivetrain of a conventionally fuelled vehicle, we’d expect fewer mechanical breakdowns, but it’s too early to say this with confidence,” she says. The RAC has also launched an EV leasing scheme and partnered with British Gas to provide a new electricity tariff for EV drivers.
The EV revolution will be a learning curve for vehicle owners. For example, one of the challenges of buying a used EV is knowing how the battery has been treated; if something goes wrong, drivers could face battery replacement costs of about £5,000, says Wells.
“These are quite tricky issues to explain to consumers and I think it will be an interesting challenge for the warranty companies,” he says. “I can imagine there will be lots of disputes, as there is no way for the consumer to know what the life of that battery has been like.”
The manufacturer itself will have this information to hand, as they collect the relevant data every time the car is used. However, it’s unclear if they will share this with owners or use it to encourage owners to stick with their service network, rather than using independent garages.
Every part of the sector will have to evolve, from mechanics to salespeople to used car websites.
“The whole industry is going to have to change,” says Wells.