Auto repair teacher launches electric vehicle repair course
As the number of electric vehicles on the road is set to skyrocket this decade, millions of drivers are going to need auto mechanics who can fix their new batteries on wheels. But today the vast majority of automotive repair professionals lack the training or equipment to repair electric vehicles, which are anatomically very different from their gasoline-powered predecessors.
As a result, many early adopters of electric vehicles were forced to rely on automakers and dealerships to service their cars – a situation that can increase repair costs and lead to frustrating wait time.
Ruth Morrissonwho chairs the Automotive Technology Department at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), wants to change that. Morrison, who was an auto mechanic before she started teaching in 2003, took a course focused on repairing hybrids and electric vehicles in 2009. She has wanted to teach the subject ever since. And with SMCC recently receiving state funding for additional workforce training, it now has the opportunity.
Last month, SMCC held its first run of a new class designed to teach mechanics how to work on hybrid and electric vehicles – the first in Maine, as far as Morrison knows, and one of a relatively large number. limited number of such programs nationwide. The edge sat down with Morrison to learn more about what his course offers and the rapidly changing landscape of electric vehicle repair.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Maddy: We are on the cusp of a huge electric vehicle boom in the United States and also around the world. What are the implications of this for independent auto repair? What new skills will mechanics need to learn?
Ruth: [Electric vehicles] have different components. They will require different equipment and tools, and technicians will need to be trained in their use. Safety issues are an issue, but then the equipment we use in this class is specific to electrical machinery diagnostics. [motors or generators], inverters and batteries. And if independent shops want to get into repairing these components, rather than just installing a whole new unit, then they will need to undergo training on this.
Which is different from what dealerships do. Dealers will usually replace an entire battery rather than attempting to balance it or replacing cells and then balancing it. As more of these vehicles are out of warranty and people are buying them used, I think consumers will want to spend less money and not have to foot the bill for the whole component, just get it fixed. Also, if someone buys a used car, it’s good to know what condition it is in before buying it. So there is predictive maintenance that can be done to see how the engine is doing, much like doing a compression test on a gasoline engine or a diesel engine. If you want to know how worn out the engine is before you buy the car, you can do some sort of predictive test. And for electric vehicles, predictive tests can also be performed.
Maddy: How did your idea for a course focused on training independent electric vehicle mechanics come about?
Ruth: Well, I first took a course in  with Dr. Quarto, who came to do some training for us, and I wanted to start offering that training to our students. [Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Quarto is a former General Motors engineer who teaches EV and hybrid vehicle repair through a company called FutureTech.] And there are special tools that we had to buy. There was an expense involved, and I didn’t have much support getting the tools to do it. But now the Maine Community College System has received support from the Governor of Maine, and she wants us to train for green jobs, and so now we have the opportunity to buy the equipment and train ourselves, and that has really opened the door for us. I have long struggled to incorporate this into our budget.
Maddy: During the development of the course, were there other programs that you drew on or were inspired by?
Ruth: Well what happened was Siemens was involved with a chain called VIP Tires and Service, which is here in the northeast, and VIP had contacted Siemens for advice on training their technicians in this area. So that they [Siemens] approached me in the summer of 2019 and asked if we could train the technicians. And then I started working directly with VIP, and the first thing that came to mind was this course I had taken with Dr. Quarto years ago. I looked for another program rather than reinventing one, and I preferred his. So we modeled him on the training offered by his company.
Maddy: Have you found many other electric vehicle repair courses?
Ruth: There are a few. I know there’s one in Worcester, Massachusetts called ACDC. [Editor’s note: The Verge was unable to find data on how many EV and hybrid repair training programs exist nationally. Rich Benoit, co-founder of the Tesla-focused repair shop The Electrified Garage, told The Verge in an email he suspects there are “under 50 dedicated EV repair programs in the US.]
Maddy: Explain to me the cogs and bolts of how your course works?
Ruth: So when we first rolled this out for VIP, it was [also] a “train the trainer” event for me and my partner, Joe. What we did was use FutureTech’s online training – we all took that online training first – and then Dr. Quarto came along and did a week-long hands-on course. It was in December. And I think as we go along, I’m going to break this big class up into smaller pieces. Because it took a lot of training on the web before going into practice. If we could break it down into systems, I think it would be much easier to deliver to the general public.
Maddy: Can you highlight some things mechanics learn in the course?
Ruth: Sure. We first looked at the security systems – understanding how these worked and checking them to make sure they were working properly. And then we did battery testing and balancing or reconditioning. So you can take an older battery and refurbish it, and it will be much better for many years to come. And then we looked at the engine generators and diagnosed them; we looked at AC inverters and compressors. Almost all high voltage systems.
Maddy: Regarding battery balancing, is the idea that we can take batteries from older vehicles and perform a heart transplant in a newer vehicle? Or is it rather to rehabilitate the battery to stay in the same vehicle?
Ruth: Both. So someone who drives a Prius might notice after five years that their gas mileage has gone down significantly. And that’s because the gasoline engine powers the powertrain rather than the electric motor because the battery no longer has enough power. Thus, this battery of this vehicle could be refurbished and returned to its original state. And then the gas mileage would come back to 45 [mpg] or whatever he started. And then also, one of the things we did during our course was to salvage a few batteries from salvage yards and recondition them.
Maddy: What kind of feedback have you received about the course from people who have taken it?
Ruth: VIP company, technicians have learned a lot. They are ready to implement these services in their stores. They have enough hybrids, Priuses that regularly pass through their stores. They could sell those services — maintenance services, predictive maintenance, and repair services. It is an applicable knowledge that they can start offering to their customers.
Maddy: Do you have any additional classes planned for later this year?
Ruth: Yes, with the grant, we need to start training more people. I think we said there would be about a hundred people. When we finish next year, we will start offering classes outside of our regular schedule. So it would be mostly in the summer and maybe during our winter vacation next year.
Maddy: The right to repair movement has played quite an important role in the opening up of the independent auto repair landscape, but some repair advocates fear that with the transition to electric vehicles, new repair restrictions may start to appear. Do the mechanics you talk to mention any particular challenges when it comes to repairing electric cars? Are there any restrictions on these vehicles, or vehicle data they don’t get from the manufacturers, which makes repairs more difficult? Is this something that concerns you in the future?
Ruth: I haven’t encountered any problems yet. But yeah, I mean, it’s still a problem. As an automotive technician, it’s always difficult trying to get the substantial information you need and diagnostic information. [EVs] are going to have the same challenge for sure.