A December 11 article in the Washington Post about electric cars, hybrids and the concerns of local mechanics is a misleading mess. It’s nothing new when traditional media outlets try to write about cars. The problem is that the average newspaper reporter has no idea how a car works, nor how to report a trend in the automotive industry.
The thesis of the Washington Post article is that local mechanics are completely unprepared to deal with the coming tidal wave of electric and hybrid cars. Not only is the article’s argument completely misguided, the piece is littered with misconceptions, falsehoods and urban myths. The entire story should be an object lesson on why journalists who cover the automotive beat are still a valuable resource for any newspaper, television or radio station.
Welcome to 1996. We have Diagnostic Tools Now
The entire thesis of this article seems to be based on automotive technology that was state-of-the-art in the 1990s, not 2017:
[T]o 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.
The auto technician of the future?
That’s the auto technician of 1996, when the on-board diagnostic system OBD-II became standard in every car, truck and van sold in the United States. OBD-II allows a single device query a vehicle’s on-board computers in any vehicle. OBD-II standardization simplified the diagnosis of increasingly complicated emissions equipment. U.S. legislation only requires that emissions-related codes and data be transmitted, but manufacturers have made the OBD-II Data Link Connector an information superhighway through which every electronic system in a modern car is diagnosed and reprogrammed. OBD-II is still the standard, over 20 years later, and provides technicians with thousands of fault codes, pointing to issues with an array of sensors that monitor everything from coolant temperature to wheel speed.
There isn’t a technician in America that doesn’t “operate diagnostic and scanning equipment to root out problems involving computer networks and data processing” on a daily basis. To suggest otherwise indicates a deep misunderstanding of what an automotive technician actually does in 2017, and continues the misperception that auto mechanics are just minimum wage grease monkeys.
Community colleges in every state in America are training future technicians on all current automotive technologies — hybrid, electric and old-fashioned internal combustion — so that they can repair the approximately 16.5 million cars the industry produces every year, regardless of their drive systems. Mercedes-Benz’s Steve Colburn notes: “Technicians on modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles spend much of their time on computers. They need to know about schematics and control units, wiring, CAN-BUS and FlexRay. They’re almost engineers.”
Over-The-Air Updates for Ball Joints?
Because these cars require so little maintenance, the article posits, local mechanics are dead already but don’t know enough to lie down:
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.
It is true that electric motors — not engines — don’t require the periodic oil changes that internal combustion engines do.
But the idea that internal combustion engines are constantly in the shop, and require extensive maintenance to operate is simply false, especially in 2017, when some service intervals have either been extended to 100,000 miles, or eliminated entirely. And it completely misses the fact that there are systems on every car, no matter how it’s powered, that require regular, and often profitable maintenance, such as this leaking CV axle boot in a Prius:
The Washington Post article states: “The latest electric vehicles can be serviced using parts purchased online or fixed remotely through over-the-air updates.”
Every single vehicle — whether it’s electric, hybrid, gas or diesel powered — has a suspension system, a braking system, an HVAC system, and a steering system. All of the components that make these systems work require regular, often costly maintenance. If you intend to drive for 50,000 miles, you’ll need brake rotors, pads, struts, ball joints and suspension bushings whether you drive an EV or a 12-cylinder BMW.
And you’re not getting that service done through “over-the-air updates.”
The Real Loss of Business for Local Mechanics
Electric vehicles don’t require a handful of things that internal combustion powered cars do. The most routine maintenance anyone with an ICE-powered car gets is an oil change.
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.
Compare it to the Chevrolet Cruze:
Wow, that sure looks like a lot, and that sure takes a lot of money away from local mechanics, right?
But like just about every new vehicle manufacturer selling cars in the United States, Chevrolet covers the cost of maintenance on its cars for at least the first two years. Every single 2015, 2016 and 2017 Chevrolet (with the exception of the bottom-feeder Spark) comes with Chevrolet Complete Care, which covers oil changes and tire rotations for two years or 24,000 miles, but you have to have the service performed at the dealer, which is a direct loss of business for local mechanics.
Chevy’s maintenance program is one of the more limited today. BMW offers free maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles, including wiper blades, brake pads and rotors, drive belts and even brake fluid. Jaguar’s EliteCare plan beats BMW’s by two years, offering complete coverage of all scheduled maintenance for five years or 60,000 miles.
The article also doesn’t indicate that service intervals for everything from oil changes to plug replacement have extended significantly. 3,000 miles used to be the standard oil change interval. Note that the Cruze’s interval has increased more than double to 7,500 miles, and that plug replacement doesn’t occur until 97,500 miles, when the first timing belt replacement is indicated.
Also, missing on the Bolt’s maintenance schedule is the same brake fluid interval that’s spelled out on the Cruze schedule. It’s the same fluid, running through the same hydraulic system, so there’s no reason it wouldn’t have to be inspected and changed at the same interval.
If local shops are worrying about lost work, OEMs covering the cost of all maintenance for five years should be the concern, not the small handful of EVs on the road.
The “Volvo Cars Go All-Electric” Urban Myth
Additionally concerning in the Washington Post article is this paragraph (emphasis added):
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.
At this point, the idea that Volvo has abandoned the internal combustion engine is as big an urban legend as razor blades in fresh produce at Halloween, and it’s a clear indication that the writer either never read the press release from Volvo, or had no idea what any of the information in it meant, or both, each of which should be a concern to an editor.
News outlets like the New York Times, Reuters and NBC cribbed headlines straight from the Volvo press release of July 2017 — “Volvo Cars to go all electric” — without actually reading deeper into the release to see what Volvo was actually claiming: That beginning in 2019, Volvo would produce cars that no longer SOLELY relied on internal combustion engines.
The bulk of the fleet that Volvo would produce after 2019 would be gas/electric hybrids, but even that doesn’t get to the real story.
Volvo is going to be building some full EVs, but most of Volvo’s fleet is going to be either gasoline or diesel full hybrids or — most importantly — “48-volt mild hybrids.”
A 48-volt mild hybrid is a cheap, easy way for manufacturers to offer about 50 percent of the benefit of a full hybrid, at about 30 percent of the cost of designing a true parallel hybrid system.
The gas or diesel engine in a mild hybrid works exactly the same as it does in a conventional internal combustion engine. The “mild hybrid” adds a Belt Alternator Starter (also called a Belt-driven Starter Generator or Motor Generator Unit, MGU), a DC-to-DC converter, and a higher voltage battery.
Efficient? A bit more.
“All-electric”? Not even close.
Is There an Electric “Revolution”? Hardly.
Predicting gloom and doom for the automotive industry in the next two decades appears to be a cottage industry now. Former GM President Bob Lutz thinks we’re all going to give up our cars in 15 years. Automotive News predicted that in 15 years your car would drive itself to the shop for maintenance. In this piece, The Washington Post quotes a technician who claims “in the next 20 years, two-thirds of the nation’s auto technicians will fall victim to the electric and hybrid revolution.”
If there’s any kind of electric revolution happening, you’d have to look really hard to find it. There have been a handful of success stories in electric cars, for sure. In affluent areas, you’re likely to see a lot of Teslas. The company narrowly missed its goal of 80,000 vehicles sold in 2016.
But Toyota alone sells that many Camrys by the middle of February every year.
Hybrids seem to be everywhere, but in actuality, they represent a tiny fraction of the total vehicles sold every year. They’re hardly new. Toyota began selling the Prius here 18 model years ago. Yet in those 18 years, only 4 million hybrids have found a home in the United States, or around 222,000 per year. In 2016, just 2% of vehicles sold in the United States were hybrids, a decline from the previous year.
The picture is even more bleak for electric vehicles. Only a handful of manufacturers even bother to market EVs in all 50 states. The biggest concentration is California, where 50 percent of all the EVs in America are on the road.
Seven other states have signed on to California’s Zero Emissions Memorandum of Understanding: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon, Maryland and New York. The Memorandum of Understanding is that by 2025, each state’s new vehicle fleet should reach 15 percent zero emissions vehicles (EVs, in other words).
In reality, none of the states are anywhere close.
California — where the sun shines more or less constantly, and the temperature is conducive to electric vehicle operation — has heavily subsidized electric vehicles, with numerous state and local incentives, and other benefits, such as the ability to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Yet, electric vehicles only currently represent five percent of the entire fleet in California.
By 2025, Massachusetts is supposed to sell 330,000 zero emissions vehicles. To date, Massachusetts consumers have purchased 11,014. Just 1,901 zero emissions vehicles were sold in Massachusetts so far in 2017. That’s up just 200 vehicles from 2014.
In the other 42 American states, most manufacturers don’t even market a zero emissions vehicle.
Want to Cover Cars? Hire Somebody Who Knows Something About Them
Every major newspaper in the country used to have a dedicated automotive writer that covered the automotive beat. For most publications, it meant not only providing reviews of new products, but giving readers an understanding of trends in the industry, and a knowledgeable take on topics like this one.
Today, bankrupt publishers have gutted their newsrooms of their top state government reporters, let alone the people that covered the automotive industry.
That results in a situation like this one, where one of the most important newspapers in America runs a story on the industry that has a tenuous grasp on reality.
To recap: Electric vehicles and hybrids require maintenance. Today’s automotive technicians are highly trained in the diagnosis of complex systems. Volvo isn’t going “all electric.” There is no electric vehicle “revolution.”
This isn’t to say that hybrid or EV technology is flawed or not meaningful, or undesirable, or that at some point in the future, electric vehicles may become more commonplace, especially in urban areas.
But for the foreseeable future, none of this is true, and major publications need to hire writers and commentators well-versed in the automotive industry before they start waving their arms about an upcoming apocalypse for automotive technicians.