auto shop of the future

Looking ahead: Electric cars, the technician shortage, specialization, and the “house cleaning” coming to our industry.

Note: This article is a little something different from our owner, Chris Dekker. Along with being a journeyman technician for 11 years, Chris has been a shop owner for 8 years as well. Very passionate about our industry, Chris spends much of his spare time reading about everything car-related or chatting with other automotive professionals. He has written for various automotive-related publications, and competed in different industry skills competitions. Based on his experience and opinions, this is an article that relates more to the auto service industry itself than our business specifically. Enjoy!

These are exciting times for anyone involved in – and passionate about – the automotive service industry. We are on the cusp of a revolution like the industry has never seen before; a revolution that has many auto service businesses (and even car manufacturers themselves) genuinely worried. Cars will change more in the next 15 years than they have in the past 50!

In this article, I would like to look into the future by discussing the four topics that I feel will shape our industry the most over the coming decade. For the top 20% of automotive shop owners, this is all exciting stuff. For the rest, it’s something to start worrying about.

The electric cars are coming – fast.

Nobody can make money on an electric car right now. Late Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne publicly stated that every time someone buys an electric Fiat 500E, the company loses $20,000 US dollars. General Motors loses at least $10,000 on every Chevrolet Volt they sell. Except for Nissan, no automaker – even Tesla at this point – makes a profit building electric vehicles. And yet most of them are rushing to bring dozens of hybrid or fully electric vehicles to market over the next 5 years. Why is this?

Because nobody wants to be left behind, or perceived as last. Between the development of electric and autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles, there is a massive “space race” happening in the automotive industry right now. It’s an expensive space race, too. Companies like General Motors are already closing factories and laying off thousands of employees in order to build up cash for their impending electric car spending spree, expected to cost billions of dollars. Some manufacturers have decided they can’t go it alone, entering alliances like the recently-announced Ford-Volkswagen or Subaru-Toyota electric vehicle collaborations. Even archrivals BMW and Mercedes are working together on an electric car.

In the service bays, electric vehicles are really shaking things up as well. Technicians require specialized training to service them, and shops require specialized tooling: everything from new screwdrivers to new air conditioning machines. As I’ll discuss later, electric vehicles will be a career ender for a lot of technicians. Electric vehicles also require a lot less service work than their gas-powered relatives. (We’ll have more about that later on too.)

The technician shortage is real – and it’s here.

For years, experts have been warning of a time when automotive shops wouldn’t be able to find enough qualified technicians to operate their businesses. Today, that time has come. Baby boomers (who make up a large percentage of the technician population) are retiring and there aren’t enough young people coming into the trade to replace them. Part of the problem: Many young people just aren’t as interested in the trades today. Others enter the automotive world, but quickly leave as they learn that modern cars are a lot more complex than they expected.

Another part of the problem stems from the type of person who makes a good technician in today’s industry. The carburetors are long gone, and even engines themselves are now starting to go away. Cars in 2019 are as much a rolling computer as they are a piece of machinery. Because of all this, the best and highest-paid technicians are no longer the mechanically-inclined types who grew up “wrenching” on cars with their dad. They are the people who should have gone to university, but didn’t. Or maybe they did; many technicians today are university educated – including one of ours. They were the kids who built computers in their basements, or achieved a 95% score in math class.

This is all good news for the technicians themselves, of course! It has become a real struggle to attract a truly qualified technician, which means that shops like ours need to pay a lot more than we did ten years ago. Technician wages will continue to rise sharply over the next decade as the shortage intensifies. Automotive service has elevated to become less of a trade, and more of a professional service like a dentist or a doctor. Shops who don’t run their businesses as such soon won’t have technicians to work in their bays. (More about that when we get to the “house cleaning” soon.)

Specialization is coming, and it’s necessary.

airdrie mechanic
Calibrating the cameras in the front of a modern vehicle.

We have a whole page about specialization on our website, so I’ll keep this part pretty brief. From that page, here’s the gist of our thoughts on specialization:

The age of the “all makes and models” automotive shop is drawing to a close. As new vehicles become increasingly complex, even formerly simple repairs now require the use of sophisticated calibration tools and training. It is no longer financially feasible for one business to support the costs of the specialty tooling, diagnostic equipment and service information to truly service all vehicles on the road properly and completely.

It’s true! On a brand new vehicle, you can’t even replace a power window motor or a brake caliper without performing some sort of computer programming or relearn procedure. Wheel alignments can take as long as three hours because they now involve aiming all of the vehicle cameras, and re-calibrating features like the adaptive cruise control or lane keep assist. All of this requires expensive, brand-specific scan tools and software subscriptions that get more expensive every year. Shops like ours have two choices: either specialize in less vehicles brands so we can offer all of this; or choose to offer a lower level of capability and service.

At My Garage, we are staying ahead of this industry trend by initially focusing on 7 vehicle brands that make up 84% of the vehicles on the road in Alberta. This lets us offer true dealership-level capability on these brands at a price that we can afford. It’s important to point out to clients that servicing less brands is a strength of our business as it lets us offer more capability than our competitors, not a weakness. In the future, we are ready and prepared to narrow down the number of brands we service even further as needed.

The “house cleaning” coming to our industry:

airdrie auto repair

Along with many others, I feel there is a major shift coming to the automotive service industry, one that will result in a substantial amount of shops going out of business. The elite shops who adapt to the rapid changes coming our way will thrive, while the rest will be left behind. I predict that in 20 years, Canada will house less than half the number of automotive shops than it does today. My reasons for this are as follows:

  1. Electric vehicles present a huge learning curve for an aging technician population. In the 1980s, the switch from carburetors to fuel injection forced many mechanics into early retirement, and nearly ended the careers of many more. And the changes coming with electric and autonomous vehicles are way bigger than anything we saw back then. Many technicians simply won’t be able to adapt and keep up, especially with less young talent coming in to the trade. This will leave the shops who have invested in the most skilled technicians at a serious advantage.
  2. Modern vehicles – especially electric – require major tooling investment on the part of shops. As mentioned above, these days even formerly simple repairs involve some sort of electronic relearn or calibration. The equipment used to do this is specialized, and expensive. Many shop owners who cling to the dying “all makes and models” business model won’t be able to invest in the equipment required to service vehicles properly, and will lose customers to the shops who can.
  3. Electric vehicles require less maintenance, which means shops will be competing over a smaller and smaller amount of potential work. Think about this: Electric cars don’t need oil changes, air filters or spark plugs. They don’t need timing belts, don’t need mufflers (or even an exhaust system, for that matter), and are way less likely to develop leaks. Even their brakes last twice as long. This is all good news for drivers, but bad news for less technical shops that depend on this low-hanging fruit of “easy” work.
  4. Car ownership is declining. Especially in urban centres, young people today just aren’t interested in owning cars. Paying for and maintaining a vehicle costs a lot of money every year; money they just don’t see the value in spending. The advent of vehicle sharing services like Car2Go, convenient consumer-to-consumer rental services like Turo, and taxi replacements like Uber and Lyft make not owning a car even easier these days. Vehicle “subscriptions” (currently being tested by a half dozen car manufacturers) are another game-changer that will bite into car ownership because the drivers never own the vehicle; the manufacturer does. Even one of the industry’s favourite “curmudgeony old guys”, former GM chairman Bob Lutz, predicts a future where most of the vehicles belong to ride-sharing companies, not individuals. This of course also means less business for repair and maintenance shops.
  5. Who fails first? The “cheap shops” will disappear. There are still lots of automotive shops who compete on price, thinking that offering the lowest rates will earn them the most customers. Unfortunately, these customers will soon find these shops closed up. The cut-rate shops simply don’t charge enough to be able to afford to attract skilled technicians in the ever-tightening competition for talent.

So, what now?

Personally, I feel that all of the changes happening in our industry are great. As clients start to become aware of just how complicated their vehicles are, and understand the complexity of what we do every day, I have never been more respected as an Automotive Service Technician. I am excited to join with other progressive shop owners across the country to shed our industry’s somewhat antiquated image, and show people what kind of professionals we truly are. Our job has never been more challenging, or more fun – and I can’t wait to see what challenges tomorrow brings.

So what’s it going to be: adapting and thriving, or getting left behind? At our shop, I think you know which side we’re on. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Looking ahead: Electric cars, the technician shortage, specialization, and the “house cleaning” coming to our industry.

  1. I think this article is spot on the changes in this business are enormous right now just wonder if customers are ready to adapt as well they will have to just that simple . Every aspect of this article that he touched on are correct Thanks for the article

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