Sunday December 04, 2022

Meet the auto repair professor who is pivoting to electric vehicles

Millions of drivers will need to have their electric cars repaired by auto mechanics. Today, however, most auto repair professionals don’t have the necessary training or equipment to repair EVs. This can lead to high repair costs and frustrating wait times.
Ruth Morrison, Southern Maine Community College’s Automotive Technology Department Chair, wants to change this. Morrison, who was an automotive mechanic before she started teaching in 2003, took a course on hybrid and electric vehicle repair back in 2009. Since then, she has wanted to teach this subject. She is now able to do so because SMCC has recently received funds from the state to train additional workers.
SMCC held its first class to teach mechanics how to repair hybrid and electric vehicles last month. It was the first such class in Maine to Morrison’s knowledge and one of a small number of such programs across the country. The Verge spoke to Morrison about her course and the rapidly-evolving world of EV repair.
This conversation has been edited to be more concise and clear.
Maddie: We are on the verge of a massive electric vehicle boom in the United States, and globally. What does this mean for independent auto repair? What new skills will mechanics need to acquire?
Ruth: There are many components to electric vehicles. They will require different tools and equipment, and technicians will need to be trained in their use. Safety concerns are one thing, but the equipment we use in this class can be used to diagnose electric machines (motors or generators), power inverters, as well as the batteries. Independent shops will need training if they want to repair these components rather than just installing a new unit.
This is a change from what the dealerships have done. Dealerships will usually replace an entire battery, rather than trying to balance it or replacing the cells and balancing it afterwards. Because there are more vehicles that are not covered by warranty and people are buying them used I think consumers will want to spend less and not have to pay for the entire component. It’s also helpful to know the condition of a used vehicle before purchasing it. Predictive maintenance can be done on the motor to determine its condition. It’s similar to a compression test on a diesel engine or gasoline engine. Predictive testing can be done to determine how worn the engine is before buying a car. Predictive testing can also be done for electric vehicles.
Maddie: How did the idea for a course that trains independent mechanics to work on electric vehicles come about?
Ruth: I took my first class with Dr. Quarto in 2009. He came and trained us. I wanted to offer that training to my students. [Editor’s note: Dr. Mark Quarto, a former engineer at General Motors, teaches hybrid and electric vehicle repair through FutureTech. We also needed to purchase special tools. It was expensive and I didn’t get much support to set up tools. The governor of Maine has now supported the Maine Community College System. She wants us to train in green jobs and so we now have the ability to purchase the equipment and get trained. This really opens the door for us. This has been a difficult task for me to fit into our budget for a while.
Maddie: Did you find any other programs that you were influenced by or modeled the course after as you created it?
Ruth: What happened was that Siemens was involved in a chain called VIP Tires and Service. VIP had approached Siemens to get their technicians trained in this area. In summer 2019, Siemens approached me and asked if we could train their technicians. So I began working directly with VIP. The first thing that came to mind was the course I had taken years ago with Dr. Quarto. I searched for other curriculum options rather than creating one from scratch, but I found his to be the best. We adapted it from the training he offers.
Maddie: Did other EV repair courses exist?
Ruth: There are a few. I know of one in Worcester, Massachusetts called ACDC. [Editor’s Note: The Verge could not find data about the number of EV and hybrid repair programs in the United States. Rich Benoit, cofounder of Tesla-focused repair shop The Electrified Garage told The Verge via email that he believes there are “under 50” dedicated EV repair programs in America.
Maddie: Can you walk me through the details of your course?
Ruth: When we first launched this for VIP, it was also a “train-the-trainer” event for Joe and me. We used FutureTech’s web-based training — we all did that first — then Dr. Quarto arrived and taught us a week-long class. This was December. As we move forward, I think I will break down that large class into smaller pieces. It was a lot of online training before we could get to the hands-on. It would be much easier to make it accessible to the general public if we could break it down into systems.
Maddie: Can I highlight some of the mechanics that you learned in the course?
Ruth: Sure. We first went through the safety systems, understanding how they work and then checking that they were functioning properly. Then we did battery testing, balancing, or reconditioning. You can take an older battery and recondition them, which will make it last for many years. Then we looked at motor generators, diagnosing them, and power inverters. Almost all high voltage systems.
Maddie: Is it possible to take older batteries and transplant them into a newer vehicle for battery balancing? Is it more about rehabilitating a battery so that it can remain in the same vehicle?
Ruth: Both. A Prius owner might notice a significant drop in gas mileage after five years. Because the battery isn’t supplying enough power, the gas engine powers the powertrain. The vehicle’s battery could be reconditioned to bring it back to its original condition. Then the gas mileage would return to 45 [mpg] or whatever its original value was. Also, we also reconditioned a few batteries that we purchased from salvage yards during our class.
Maddie: What feedback did you get from the people who took the course?
Ruth: Thanks to Ruth, the company VIP, technicians have learned a lot. They are ready to offer these services in their shops. They have enough hybrids and Priuses to keep their shops stocked. They could sell these services — the predictive maintenance, maintenance services, and repair services. They can offer this knowledge to their customers.
Maddie: Do your plans include additional courses for later in the year?
Ruth: Yes, we need to train more people with the grant. It was about 100 people, I believe. We’ll be offering courses that are not part of our regular curriculum by the time we finish the program in the next year. This would be mostly in the summer, and possibly during our winter break next year.
Maddie: While the right-to-repair movement played a significant role in opening up independent auto repair, some repair advocates worry that new restrictions may emerge with the EV transition. Are mechanics discussing any specific challenges in repairing electric cars with you? Are there any restrictions on these vehicles or vehicle data that they don’t get from manufacturers that makes repair more difficult? Are you concerned about this in the future?
Ruth: I haven’t yet run into a problem. It’s always a problem, but yes, I mean. It’s always a challenge to get the necessary information and diagnostic information as an automotive technician. The same problem will be faced by [EVs].

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