EV own­ers still get­ting the gas on main­te­nance costs

China Daily (Canada) - - HONG KONG -

As the num­ber of elec­tric ve­hi­cles on the roads in Hong Kong grows, the city is fac­ing a se­ri­ous short­age of qual­i­fied me­chan­ics to ser­vice them. It’s a se­ri­ous is­sue for con­sumers con­tem­plat­ing a switch to an EV. The ab­sence of qual­i­fied me­chan­ics raises con­cerns over con­ve­nience, cost and safety.

In the first place, a short­age of qual­i­fied me­chan­ics leads un­doubt­edly to poor main­te­nance and poor per­for­mance, wor­ried Fung Manke­ung, head of the De­part­ment of Au­to­mo­tive Engi­neer­ing at the In­sti­tute of Vo­ca­tional Ed­u­ca­tion. He checked off some po­ten­tial dan­gers that are of real con­cern to me­chan­ics, ve­hi­cle op­er­a­tors and the pub­lic at large, once the cars, billed as en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, have been in the shop for ser­vic­ing. Elec­tric cars are not for the week­end me­chanic, ac­cus­tomed to tin­ker­ing with his old in­ter­nal com­bus­tion ve­hi­cles, cau­tioned Fung. The AC bat­ter­ies at the heart of EVs, run at be­tween 400-600 volts, can de­liver a lethal shock. The DC bat­ter­ies on gas pow­ered cars carry only 12 to 24 volts. Con­sumers con­sid­er­ing mak­ing a switch must take into ac­count the main­te­nance cost of re­spon­si­ble own­er­ship.

A study led by Sunny Lam of Civic Ex­change, a lo­cal think tank, reveals that over the last cou­ple of decades, while the ve­hi­cle pop­u­la­tion on the roads has been in­creas­ing, qual­i­fied man­power to in­spect and main­tain all types of ve­hi­cles has been un­able to keep pace. EV sales, in par­tic­u­lar, started climb­ing steadily be­fore the Mil­len­nium. The cri­sis over skilled work­ers to ser­vice elec­tric ve­hi­cles is grow­ing even more acute as the al­ter­na­tive en­gines be­come more pop­u­lar, says the re­port re­leased in Jan­uary.

The fa­tal car ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing an elec­tric BYD E6 taxi in Shen­zhen in May 2012 raised an early alarm about whether elec­tric cars were safe. The BYD taxi was hit by a drunk driver and al­most in­stan­ta­neously erupted in flames, killing the driver and two pas­sen­gers. The widely pub­li­cized tragedy, prompted the Chair­man of the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil’s Panel on En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs, Chan Hak-kan, to join with other mem­bers in urg­ing the govern­ment to re­con­sider its ini­tia­tive to in­tro­duce the BYD K9 se­ries elec­tric bus and E6 model taxi to Hong Kong streets.

Me­chan­i­cal fail­ures of con­ven­tional ve­hi­cles usu­ally are rel­a­tively easy to iden­tify, by way of an in­spec­tion of its me­chan­i­cal com­po­nents. Fail­ures of EVs are more dif­fi­cult to iso­late. Some may be in­vis­i­ble, said Fung. The com­po­nents and sys­tems of EVs are sub­ject to me­chan­i­cal break­downs, same as reg­u­lar cars. Break­downs of EVs, how­ever, equally may orig­i­nate in the elec­tronic cir­cuitry, said Fung.

An is­sue that be­dev­ils the au­to­mo­tive re­pair in­dus­try con­cerns the patented tech­nolo­gies of the man­u­fac­tur­ers. The make of EVs may dif­fer sub­stan­tially from an­other. Even though there are some com­mon tech­nolo­gies to all EVs, there are no uni­ver­sal stan­dards re­lat­ing to how the cars are put to­gether, Fung noted. Even the tools used on one type of elec­tronic car may not be ap­pro­pri­ate for an­other. Choos­ing the right bat­tery pack for any par­tic­u­lar ve­hi­cle is cru­cial, a task de­mand­ing ad­vanced skill, said Lam. The bat­tery pack, he un­der­lines, is the most vi­tal com­po­nent of an EV.

He com­pared EV in­spec­tion pro­ce­dures to de­cod­ing. A com­puter-con­troled mon­i­tor is mounted on the panel of each elec­tric au­to­mo­bile. When there are glitches in the sys­tem, cues pop up on screen, show­ing the er­ror codes. Only tech­ni­cians fa­mil­iar with that model of EV can “de­code” the is­sues and pin­point the source. He has­tened to stress the im­por­tance of the me­chanic’s know­ing how to dis­able the bat­tery net­work safely. Mis­takes, lit­er­ally, can be fa­tal.

The so­lu­tion is not as sim­ple as “just qual­ify more me­chan­ics to ser­vice EVs”. Th­ese patented tech­nolo­gies used by dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers are the bread and but­ter of the man­u­fac­tur­ers and may give their ve­hi­cles com­pet­i­tive edge. Elec­tric car mak­ers don’t hand out blueprints and schemat­ics to just any old garage me­chanic.

The me­chan­ics qual­i­fied to re­pair dif­fer­ent brands of ve­hi­cles work for the autho­rized deal­er­ships. Any car owner knows deal­er­ships charge pre­mium rates for ser­vice and main­te­nance work. In­con­ve­nient though that may seem to the bud­get-minded mo­torist, there is no sat­is­fac­tory al­ter­na­tive. The new car buyer who is con­sid­er­ing a switch to EVs must ac­cept that the nec­es­sary higher ser­vice costs charged by deal­er­ships are part of the deal.

Tesla Mo­tors, the world’s lead­ing maker of EVs, has a di­rect-to-consumer ap­proach to af­ter sales ser­vice. Its only ser­vice cen­ter in Hong Kong is in Tsuen Wan. Tesla of­fers a range of ser­vice plans for its Model S cus­tomers, priced from HK$9,100 for a three-year con­tract to HK$26,700 for an eight-year pack­age. A spokesper­son for Tesla in Hong Kong, Scar­lett Au, said the ques­tion isn’t about mo­nop­o­liz­ing af­ter sales ser­vice. It’s a ques­tion of con­sis­tent and pre­mium main­te­nance by me­chan­ics trained to re­pair the com­pany’s patented com­po­nents. Au said Tesla has no con­fi­dence in auto me­chan­ics at reg­u­lar ser­vice garages. “Most of them in Hong Kong are un­qual­i­fied for EV ser­vic­ing,” she con­cluded.

That is­sue presents a prob­lem for con­sumers, the in­dus­try and the au­to­mo­tive ser­vic­ing in­dus­try, said Fung. What will hap­pen if the skills of me­chan­ics trained on stan­dard au­to­mo­biles be­come ob­so­lete, and there are no uni­ver­sal stan­dards for a mar­ket in which man­u­fac­tur­ers’ se­crets are closely guarded? Where will the in­dus­try find new qual­i­fied me­chan­ics? Reg­u­lar in­fu­sions of fresh ta­lent will sim­ply dry up.

He called for im­proved train­ing, to give stu­dents in au­to­mo­tives bet­ter ground­ing through early ex­po­sure to new EV tech­nolo­gies. Fung noted that the cur­ricu­lum for the Higher Di­ploma at the Au­to­mo­tive Engi­neer­ing Pro­gramme is re­viewed ev­ery two years. Re­cently, stu­dents have been trained on al­ter­nat­ing cur­rent mo­tors, now es­sen­tial com­po­nents of EVs. The tech­nol­ogy is go­ing through fast gen­er­a­tional evo­lu­tions as sales mo­men­tum in­creases. The lithium ion bat­ter­ies of to­day are re­plac­ing the nickel metal hy­brids that ran EVs a decade ago.

En­roll­ment in au­to­mo­tives train­ing ac­tu­ally is grow­ing at a healthy rate. In Hong Kong, the over-en­roll­ment rate in 2014-15 aca­demic year stood at 28 per­cent, and that num­ber in­creased to 48 per­cent for 2015-16. Fung said he was grat­i­fied to see that young­sters are turn­ing to au­to­mo­tive engi­neer­ing for ca­reer train­ing. The chron­i­cally en­trenched stigma that has sur­rounded ve­hi­cle main­te­nance work­ers ap­pears to be go­ing away. He said that can be at­trib­uted, in part, to the in­tro­duc­tion of the Vol­un­tary Reg­is­tra­tion Scheme for Ve­hi­cle Me­chan­ics in 2007, so that me­chan­ics can pro­vide cer­ti­fied proof of com­pe­tency.

Me­chan­ics must re­new cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ev­ery three years. But to do so, re­quires that they at­tend 20 hours of con­tin­u­ing pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment. Lam ar­gued that still isn’t enough. The gen­er­a­tional changes in EV de­sign tech­nol­ogy are get­ting shorter ev­ery year. That de­mands the prac­ti­tion­ers keep abreast and up­date their skill sets.

VTC’s in-ser­vice train­ing course pro­vides train­ing to work­ing me­chan­ics with dated skills and need to get up-to-date with cur­rent tech­nol­ogy. Me­chan­ics have sev­eral op­tions they can choose. “The lack of EV spe­cial­ists cre­ates a hin­drance for the evo­lu­tion of the EV mar­ket. The prob­lem is not acute for the time be­ing in Hong Kong, be­cause our EV mar­ket is still young. But it will loom large in the com­ing years. We must take ac­tion be­gin­ning now, or it will be too late,” re­marked Lam.

Fung said that there are many op­por­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple in­clud­ing abun­dant in­tern­ships. He said many grad­u­ates from the au­to­mo­tives pro­gram are hired right away by autho­rized auto deal­er­ships. There’s also such a de­mand for in­struc­tors that many grad­u­ates head back to school to be­come in­struc­tors them­selves.

The statis­tics em­pha­size the need for trained tech­ni­cians. At the end of Oc­to­ber last year, EVs on the city roads were re­ported to num­ber about 3,000. That’s a big jump over five years from 2010, when therewere only 100 in use in Hong Kong.

The lack of EV spe­cial­ists cre­ates a hin­drance for the evo­lu­tion of the EV mar­ket. The prob­lem is not acute for the time be­ing in Hong Kong, be­cause our EV mar­ket is still young. But it will loom large in the com­ing years. We must take ac­tion be­gin­ning now, or it will be too late.”

Con­tact the writer at jenny@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

Sunny Lam, Civic Ex­change

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