autos

Who’ll Fix Your Electric Car? – SF Weekly


It was the 1960s in Southern California –– the epicenter of car culture in America –– when a 13-year-old Pat Cadam started tinkering under the hood. 

Two decades later, what once had been a hobby became a career path when Cadam opened up a small-scale car repair business. It was around the same time that computers started becoming more widely used in cars in the electronic control module, which monitors the sensors in a car to ensure it’s running efficiently. 

Cadam called it a “watershed moment,” mechanics either realized that learning how to work on computerized systems was essential to staying in the industry, or they were relegated to the status of “backyard mechanic” by continuing to view cars as mechanical devices.  

By the late ’90s, the industry began talking about the modern hybrid vehicle –– a marriage between an electric motor and gas-powered engine –– following the passage of the 1990 Clean Act Amendments and 1992 Energy Policy Act, which enacted tighter emissions restrictions and aimed to decrease the United States’ dependence on oil. And in 1997, Toyota began mass producing the first hybrid car: the Prius. 

As more hybrids came on the market, Cadam wanted to learn everything he possibly could about them. With manufacturers remaining tight-lipped about new technology, Cadam sought out other experts in the auto industry, bringing them into his garage to hold classes for technicians in the area. 

But by the mid-aughts, hybrids were no longer considered the car of the future. With millions of dollars flowing from Sand Hill Road venture capital firms, Tesla rolled silently and efficiently onto the scene in 2006 with the promise of producing the first modern electric car. 

The Tesla Roadster came with a $110,000 price tag, placing it out of reach for most of the driving public. It was around this time that Cadam started focusing his energy on what he thought was the next logical step for cars: plug-in hybrids. 

“Toyota said they were going to leapfrog from hybrids right into electric cars, and I thought, ‘Nope. That’s too big a technology jump,”’ Cadam says. “Behaviorally, people are going to feel nervous about it. The plug-in hybrid makes perfect sense for so many styles of driving and also for people to get used to the technology and to move forward and have it be acceptable.”

It was mechanical engineers like University of California, Davis, Professor Andrew A. Frank and other gear heads who led the way and designed the first plug-in hybrid and conversion kits for hybrid owners to upgrade their cars to plug-ins. Cadam was one of many who was instrumental in making hybrid conversion kits more widespread, selling 6,000 to 7,000 kits until Toyota decided to mass-produce its first plug-in Prius in 2012. 

Since then, the number of electric cars sold in the United States each year has only continued to grow, with an estimated 761,000 hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles sold in 2020 –– an all-time high for the fifth consecutive year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Sales in 2021 already are outpacing the year prior, with nearly 300,000 vehicles sold in the first quarter alone. 

But underneath the hood of a gas-powered car differs from what’s underneath the hood of an electric vehicle. While electric cars have fewer moving pieces and don’t require standard maintenance like oil changes or smog checks, fixing certain parts on an EV requires specialized training.

As the industry continues to evolve, at his 26th Street auto shop –– aptly named Pat’s Garage –– Cadam and his technicians have stayed abreast with technology. It’s been a natural progression for those who keep up to date, he says. But “if you’re coming into it cold without any information, then it’s a big learning curve.”

Despite San Francisco having one of the largest concentrations of electric vehicles in the country, some of the city’s auto shops remain focused on fixing gas-powered cars. While some say those who haven’t kept up with technology could get swallowed up as more drivers buy electric vehicles, others point out these types of cars still have routine fixes on universal car parts such as brakes, suspension, and tires.

GREEN MACHINE

In 2007, as hybrid cars continued to grow in popularity, Carolyn Coquillette rushed to open her eco-friendly auto shop, Luscious Garage, in SoMa. She says she was terrified someone was going to “beat [her] to the punch” in setting up a hybrid repair business that was just as green as the cars it fixed. 

“That was 14 years ago, and no one’s done shit,” she remarks. “I’m pretty disappointed by the industry. I don’t know that anyone has really thought about meeting people in the middle on an environmental basis.” 

Five years after it opened, Luscious Garage became the world’s first Certified B Corporation auto shop by focusing on paying employees living wages, using renewable energy, and conserving water by harvesting rainwater in a 3,000-gallon tank.

Coquillette has been working on cars for nearly two decades now after taking night classes to learn how to fix a problem she’d had with her car. She says one of the main differences between repairing a gas-powered car compared to a hybrid or electric vehicle is the battery, higher voltage, and the electric motor. 

“It’s interesting because there are just different failure patterns,” Coquillette says. “A lot of fixing cars is knowing what the signatures are for certain types of behaviors like any troubleshooting, so you just have to learn different ways that electrics break versus internal combustions.” 

Hybrids, she adds, are often even more complex under the hood because they’re “double the trouble” with both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine seen in standard gas-powered cars. 

But mechanics have had to adapt to changing cars for decades now, whether it was the anti-lock brakes of the 1980s or the backup camera of the early 2000s. The pace of innovation is now just getting faster, with companies like Waymo looking at self-driving cars as the way of the future.

“There are the early adopters, there are the pragmatists, there are the laggers, everybody’s in their own camp,” Coquillette says. “It doesn’t mean the folks that are later to the party are necessarily doomed –– it just means that they’re not necessarily in as good a strategic position in terms of leading the market. Either you’re launching at it, and you want to find new customers, and you want to be more proactive or, you want to be a little more conservative in your response, and you wait and see.” 

But even for those in the lollygagger category, Coquillette notes there will be plenty of cars with internal combustion engines on the market for years to come. 

That leaves plenty of business for people like Walee Gon, who has owned Faxon Garage for 12 years. While his mechanics work on certain parts of hybrids and electric cars, like brakes and tires, he hasn’t seen the demand in his pocket of the city. Plus, Gon adds, electric vehicles need much less maintenance. 

“Right now, our business model is keeping us busy enough that we don’t need to address that to still do well in this industry,” he says. “In due time, if things change, suddenly maybe two years later, 50 or 70 percent of all vehicles are electric or hybrid combination, maybe that’s when we need our guys to brush up on it and really deal with that technology.” 

Realistically, he estimates it will be another three to five years before he begins to see enough demand to get his mechanics up to speed and trained on working on hybrids and electric vehicles.

RIGHT TO REPAIR

As car manufacturers include more proprietary technology in vehicles and shield it away from the public, fixing parts of modern and electric cars has become more difficult for independent repair shops.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission to consider new regulations on “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items.” A week later, the commission voted unanimously to enforce right-to-repair rules, allowing consumers more control in repairing a range of products.

The battle over right to repair has most notably been brewing in the tech industry, with companies like Apple imposing restrictions on who can fix its iPhones, iPads and computers. But the right to repair has also been central for auto mechanics as well, with a number of groups such as the CAR Coalition and Auto Care Association praising Biden’s announcement.

Cadam has been a long-time supporter of the right to repair and argues that when a person buys a car, it’s their car –– meaning they should be able to take it to get it fixed where they want.

In the automotive industry, Tesla has managed to monopolize its corner of the market by controlling everything from sales to repairs, which are done by in-house Tesla technicians or approved body shops. The strategy has led to nightmarish wait times for Tesla drivers even looking at the most minute repairs.

“They’re trying to maximize their profit by selling new cars, not fixing the old cars,” Cadam says. “There’s sort of a catch up problem that Tesla has, whereas, if you buy something like a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf, you can get parts for those and the repair process is very simple.”

With Biden’s order, and the FTC’s latest decisions, Cadam predicts Tesla won’t be able to protect its stronghold for much longer.

ELECTRIC BLUE COLLAR

With the rise of hybrids and electric vehicles, trade programs have adjusted their curriculum to account for the technological advances and demand for high-skilled technicians. 

City College of San Francisco was an early adopter in integrating hybrids and electric vehicles into its automotive technical program, according to Nick Rothman, department chair of the automotive, construction, and building maintenance department. In the last five years, he’s seen an increase in students interested in specializing in electric vehicle and hybrid repair. 

Rothman, who has been at the college for a decade and has worked on cars longer than that, says a lot of the training and techniques used in troubleshooting and repairing an electric vehicle also apply to the modern American car. Hybrid and electric cars, he says, have also had huge impacts on the progression of training programs like the one at City College.

“The amount of computer communication in a normal modern vehicle is pretty amazing,” Rothman says. “It’s not just specific to electric cars. You look at a 2021 car, it’s a very complicated machine. I think hybrid and EV materials were sort of a vehicle to bring training programs into the modern era of heavily computerized automotive systems with things such as self-learning software and multiple high-speed data networks.” 

The seasoned instructor points to the Subaru Outback as a prime example. Newer models of one of the brand’s top-selling cars include technology that will apply the brakes if it senses the car is going to collide with an object. Rothman says many drivers, and even some in the industry, considered the technology unique to hybrids and electric vehicles. That, he adds, led many to think of “standard vehicles as mechanical devices where you listened to how it sounds and that will give you a clue about what could be wrong.” 

The evolution of automotive classes to include electric vehicles isn’t just happening at the college or trade school level, though. One San Francisco high school has taken steps to teach the basics of electric vehicles.

As high schools become more focused on college prep, auto shop programs have been cut from course catalogs over the past few decades. But eight years ago, the automotive technology program made a comeback at George Washington High School. The program is one of the last of its kind in the city and quite possibly the most hands-on shop class in the greater Bay Area, according to instructor Andre Higginbotham.

He says Washington High’s program is a pathway for students to pursue the trade over multiple years. While the first year is predominantly focused on safety, vehicle design, and preventative maintenance, subsequent years focus on combustion engines, electrical systems, and electrical diagnoses. 

Higginbotham says the program is in the early stages of transitioning into learning about hybrids and electric vehicles. However, physically getting their hands on the technology often is out of the school’s “financial grasp” –– especially given they serve upwards of 100 students a day. It also creates new liabilities for the school.

There are always liabilities in high school shop class as students crawl under two-ton vehicles, Higginbotham says. But because electric cars have a much higher voltage, the liabilities are increased. 

“Your average car works off of a voltage system that is based around 12 volts,” Higginbotham says. “Twelve volts is going to hurt you, but it’s not going to kill you unless you have some kind of precondition. When we’re talking about voltages that are 300, 400, 500 plus, those are the kind of voltages that can cause cardiac arrest. It can kill you, and it’s a whole new set of safety concerns and definitely the types of safety concerns that have to be taught in order to perform these tasks safely.” 

In the classroom, they focus on electric vehicle safety, and harness online simulation programs to ensure students are prepared when they do get to work on hybrids or electric cars. 

For many aspiring auto workers, Higginbotham and Rothman agree that having the skills to repair hybrids and electric vehicles is a pathway to higher wages.

“As it’s become more difficult to troubleshoot to repair modern vehicles, the field has become sort of more limited,” Rothman sys. “There aren’t really that many people who are ready to take a diagnostic technician position at a dealership or shop, so the employer has to sweeten the pot and offer a higher salary to get someone to make the huge commitment to learning all the material and getting the licenses.” 

For Higginbotham, the issue is two-fold. The trades have fought a stigma for many years, leading to a generation of kids who went to college who “weren’t necessarily ready for it or weren’t necessarily interested, but simply did it because that’s kind of the cultural norm right now.” 

In addition to the issue of education, the trades also have fought a stigma that they’re not the type of jobs where a person can make a lot of money. Specialized training for hybrids and electric vehicles that can boost salaries higher addresses that, Higginbotham says. 

In his classroom, Higginbotham says the beauty of mechanics is that “it’s kind of like math in the sense that it’s all based off of principles” and crosses language barriers for students who are classified as English language learners. 

“When you’re talking about wages that get over $70,000, what you’re in essence talking about is access to better education for your kids, access to better housing, access to better neighborhoods, access to all of this stuff,” Higginbotham says. “In the case of San Francisco, there’s definitely jobs that pay more than others, and a lot of that is a conversation of scarcity. When there’s a lack of resources out there, you can charge more and or get paid more.”





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