As it turns out, “getting your hands dirty” might end up being just an expression for auto mechanics in the near future. In a trade that has required a unique set of hands-on skills and vehicle knowledge for decades, technology is really throwing a wrench into its future. (In fact, now we’re wondering if mechanics will even need wrenches in the future…)
The first car, the Benz Patent Motor Car produced 131 years ago, looks almost nothing like cars of today, from the outside right down to the (single-cylinder four-stroke) engine:
Cars have, of course, been changing ever since. And one expert, Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, thinks the next five years might bring more change to the automobile industry than the last 50.
“Technological change rarely advances smoothly. It advances in pulses. In revolutions,” writes Barra for the World Economic Forum. Barra says the auto industry is now in the fourth industrial revolution, driven by “the convergence of connectivity, electrification and changing customer needs.” The result, she says, will be cleaner, safer, smarter vehicles.
More and more industry insiders believe driverless vehicles are in our future (and companies from Google to General Motors are working feverishly to make it happen). The connected cars of our present already have incredibly smart active safety features and they have already the ability to communicate both with each other and with their manufacturers.
But what of the auto mechanic? Cars are becoming more and more technologically advanced and traditional combustion engines continue to be phased out in favor of energy-efficient power sources. So what will become of a profession that – just a generation ago – prided itself on working directly with the mechanics and electronics of cars and trucks? We explore the biggest questions facing today’s auto mechanic.
How Have Connected Cars Impacted Mechanics?
The biggest shift that’s come along with connected vehicle capabilities might be that the idea of a car “as an island unto itself” is gone. Today’s vehicles aren’t stand-alone entities, but rather part of a network of navigation and shared information like road hazards and weather conditions.
“We are moving from an industry that, for 100 years, has relied on vehicles that are stand-alone, mechanically controlled and petroleum-fueled to ones that will soon be interconnected, electronically controlled and fueled by a range of energy sources,” says GM’s Barra.
Many cars with connected technologies are already able to diagnose themselves and update their own software. Several startups, like Zubie, offer maintenance alerts and engine diagnostic information, including how severe a potential mechanical problem might be, all before you or your vehicle even set foot (or wheel) in a repair shop.
From Mechanics to Techies
Mechanics now do a lot of software programming, Joe Sevart, owner of an auto service business in Missouri, told The Atlantic. But as technology improves, connected cars will likely be able to perform updates themselves (even as they’re being driven) without a mechanic’s intervention at all.
Both the job requirements and day-to-day activities of auto mechanics have also already changed in measurable ways. Vocational training – on the job, hands-on learning – used to be a hallmark of auto mechanics. (In fact, there might be no image of working with one’s hands more classic than that of an auto mechanic.) But cars, and the systems that make them run, become more complex each year, and now mechanics must attend frequent software trainings in order to remain up-to-date.
“I spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year on training,” says Sevart, because things change so quickly.
The image of a mechanic sliding underneath a car or popping open a hood to find out what’s going on inside is also fading quickly. Technology helps mechanics figure out what’s wrong with vehicles without ever taking a peek inside.
“Now, all of my technicians work off of iPads and laptops and we’re in the process of going paperless,” said Sevart.
For drivers, all this will likely mean more transparency within the auto repair industry, and perhaps drivers will even have more confidence and understanding of what’s wrong with our cars, and what needs to be fixed.
Are There Roles for Mechanics in the Connected-Car World?
Mechanics transitioning into the role of technician are likely to be met with incredible job opportunities. The industry consensus, according to Automotive News, is that there is a serious lack of automotive technicians who are able to work on the advanced technology in vehicles today, and that shortage is likely to continue.
Ford and GM estimate they’ll need 15,000 new technicians for their dealerships within the U.S. over the next five years, but the predicted technician shortfall is over 25,000, according to Mark Davis, auto automotive programs manager at Seminole State College of Florida.
Technicians will have job opportunities, but dealerships will have to keep up, as will training programs. Two auto industry experts say the key issue with the technician shortage involves how dealerships handle service – specifically, how their service adviser system works, says Automotive News. Service advisers, who work as liaisons between mechanics and dealership customer service teams are often hired for their sales ability, not their technical ability, and because they’re often paid primarily by commission, they can be prone to over-promising service turnaround time, putting pressure on automotive technicians who, writes Automotive News, are often underpaid for their skill.
Mechanics and auto technicians are still sorely needed, but they’ll have to navigate a system that isn’t necessarily set up to keep them on top of trends or properly compensated and supported.
What Will the Future of the Auto Mechanic’s Training Look Like?
Smart vehicle technology, like brake assist, will put less wear and tear on vehicles, says CB Insights, meaning fewer trips to the shop for tune-ups, and (hopefully) fewer crashes and collisions. But, when the cars of the future do get to the repair shop, mechanics and technicians will need to understand and work with increasingly complex computer systems.
Alternative-fuel vehicles undoubtedly will change (and already have changed) mechanical training as they look completely different under the hood than combustion engines. In fact, electric vehicles don’t have an engine at all. Instead, they have batteries that power electric motors. While training will necessarily have to shift to accommodate alternative-fuel powered vehicles, gas-powered cars aren’t going anywhere soon, and mechanical training will still need to focus on traditional engines and vehicles systems.
“Today,” Sevart said, “mechanics and technicians can work in a repair shop and not get their hands very dirty at all.”