Trade tips: electric vehicle servicing

Please note: a version of this article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of IMI Magazine and was written for a motor trade audience.

In our Dec/Jan issue, James Dillon predicted that “setting up as the local electric vehicle specialist will pay dividends in the long run”.

The experience of Tomsett MOT Centre, in Kent, gives credence to this theory. Owner Dave Tomsett explains: “I keep up with new technologies and getting into EV sounded like a wise move, so I started researching training.

“I did the one-day IMI awareness course, which was excellent, and went on to do level 1 and 2 with Bosch, and level 3 and 4 with Pro-Moto.

“We are one of very few garages to have these qualifications and, because we do trade MOTs as well as retail, we could see there was demand.

“In January 2018, we dedicated a bay to hybrid and electric, lined it out and invested in new equipment. We already had Snap-on diagnostic tools but we purchased a G-scan 2 and other kit such as insulated gloves and workshop signage.

“We did a local press launch highlighting that we were making our plug-in point available as a free resource, and it went down very well.”

Tomsett have a Prius courtesy car stickered-up to advertise that they’re an EV specialist and Dave heaps praise on the new Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Repair Alliance (HEVRA).

“We share information with other repairers and even borrow tools, which saves you buying things you might only use once in a blue moon,” he says.

Peter Melville established HEVRA following a problem with his parents’ plug-in Vauxhall. “I started in independent garages and was working for Snap-on when this issue arose with the Ampera’s air con,” he says. “The nearest franchised dealer was an hour away and several good independents wouldn’t take it.

“In the end, I found a mobile air con specialist who had the kit to work on high voltage. I realised there was a gap in the market – a service to help people find local independent garages covering EV. That was the embryo for what became HEVRA.

“We carefully vet all our members to ensure they have the appropriate qualifications and correct tools. Then, for £25 a month, we provide a technical hotline, a quarterly newsletter and advertise on all the main electric car forums, to let people know there is an alternative to the main dealers.”

Over at Pro-Moto, director Eliot Smith is at the forefront of EV training, having previously been responsible for upskilling Honda’s UK network.

“When we started Pro-Moto about 10 years ago I was on the IMI group putting together EV courses, along with representatives from City & Guilds and the Fire & Rescue Service,” he says.

“We now work with manufacturers including JLR, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Fiat, Toyota and McLaren, as well as independent garages, and we certified about 300 technicians to level 4 last year.

“The principles are the same on all EVs. Electricity is never going to change, the whole universe is built on it, but different manufacturers take different approaches to things like battery management.

“In the early days, we were only doing about 10 courses a year, but we’ve got five courses running concurrently next week. Demand is high.

“We unravel the complexities, give people experience of different platforms, make them aware of the risks and give them the skills to service, maintain and repair if necessary.

“Manufacturers are bringing more EVs to market but as an industry we are failing to explain it to the end user. What’s best for them – a battery car or what type of hybrid? Staff in dealerships need to be educated in these technologies to give them the confidence to explain it to customers.

“Manufacturers know where they are with the internal combustion engine. With electric, they aren’t so sure. What if there was a warranty issue? What are the options for second life batteries? How do they mitigate against these unknowns?

“What manufacturers can do is make sure their technicians have the right skills, tools and parts to service EVs, and the aftermarket must be ready to pick up where franchised dealers leave off.”

Demonstrating the depth of expertise in the repair sector, Neil Kidby, product category manager at Sealey, also did the level 2 and 3 courses with Bosch.

“We are lagging behind Europe in terms of Alternative Fuel Vehicle (AFV) penetration, but these technologies are coming and it will happen quickly,” he says. “Before long you might be powering your house from your Toyota.

“The fact is a lot of technicians are frightened of electric cars. The battery is scary, but if you take that out of the equation it is very much like working on any other car. What you must do is protect yourself and have a sealed environment.

“This isn’t as expensive or such a leap as many think. Hybrid vehicles have been around for 100 years after all. Isolate the battery and follow the manufacturers’ instructions and you will lay the foundations for the continued success of your business.

“The essentials are: an exclusion zone – barriers and signage to stop people wandering in (as a bonus this also advertises that you do this type of work); then there’s the kit – an insulation mat and gloves – and a category III voltmeter.

“There’s also the only item we sell which we hope is never used: a rescue pole. People don’t like to think about it, but you have to. In the worst case scenario, with electrocution there’s a risk that a body could catch fire if it isn’t isolated.

“In terms of sales, we’ve seen an upward trend over the last six months. We currently sell mainly to independent garages but are in negotiations with a major vehicle manufacturer too.”

Back at the coalface, Dave Tomsett concludes: “We cannot earn a living from EV alone yet, but it is growing. Overall, we’ve invested around £7.5k in new tools, training and equipment. Some jobs can be time-consuming but it’s a learning curve.

“We have a new apprentice coming in the summer and he’ll be involved with EVs from day one. That’s vital because we need to attract more skilled youngsters into the industry – working on vehicles like these should be an appealing alternative to the university route.

“Attitudes are changing; the 2040 deadline for petrol and diesel sales will focus minds, range will increase and as battery technology improves it will snowball.”

An important question we’ve not delved into is whether the government should legislate to require anyone working on EVs to have further qualifications. We’ll explore that another day.