How to repair an electric vehicle? This course will teach you.
With the number of electric vehicles on the roads set to skyrocket this decade, millions of drivers will need auto mechanics who can repair their new wheeled batteries. But today, the vast majority of auto repair professionals don’t have the training or equipment to fix EVs, which are anatomically very different from their gas-powered predecessors.
As a result, many early adopters of electric vehicles have been forced to rely on automakers and dealers to service their cars – a situation that could drive up repair costs and lead to frustratingly long waiting times.
Ruth Morrison, who sits the Automotive Technology Department at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), wants to change that. Morrison, who was an auto mechanic before starting teaching in 2003, took a course in 2009 focused on hybrid and EV repair. Since then she wants to teach the subject. And now that SMCC has recently received funding from the state for additional staff training, it now has the opportunity.
Last month, SMCC did its first run of a new class designed to teach mechanics working on hybrid and electric vehicles — the first in Maine, to the best of Morrison’s knowledge, and one of a relatively small number of such programs across the country. The edge spoke with Morrison to learn more about what her course has to offer and the rapidly evolving EV repair landscape.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
maddie: We are on the cusp of a massive explosion of electric vehicles in the United States and globally. What are the implications for independent auto repair? What new skills do mechanics need to learn?
Ruth: [Electric vehicles] have different components. They will need different equipment and tools, and technicians will need to be trained in their use. The safety issues are one issue, but the equipment we use in this class is specifically for diagnosing the electrical machines [motors or generators], the inverters and the batteries. And if independent shops want to repair these components instead of installing a brand new unit, they will have to receive training in this.
That’s different from what the dealers have done. Dealers will generally replace an entire battery instead of trying to balance it or replace the cells and then balance it. Since there are more of these vehicles out of warranty, and people are buying them used, I would think consumers would want to spend less money and not have to pay the bill for the whole part, just have it repaired. And then when someone buys a used car, it’s nice to know what condition it is in before buying it. So there is some predictive maintenance that can be done to see how the engine is, a bit 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 a kind of predictive test. And for electric vehicles, there are also predictive tests that can be performed.
maddie: How did your idea for a course aimed at training independent mechanics on electric vehicles come about?
Ruth: Well, I first took a lesson in  with dr. Quarto, who came to us and did a training, and I wanted to offer 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 a cost involved and I didn’t get much support to set up tools to do that. But now the Maine Community College system has: received support from the governor of Maine, and she wants us to train in green lanes, and so we now have the opportunity to buy the equipment and get us trained, and that’s really opened the door for us. I struggled for a long time to get this in our budget.
maddie: During the course of developing the course, were there any other programs that you based the model on or drew inspiration from?
Ruth: Well what happened was Siemens was involved with a chain called VIP Tires and Service, which is located here in the Northeast, and VIP had approached Siemens for guidance in training their technicians in this area. so she [Siemens] approached me in the summer of 2019 and asked if we could train the technicians. And so I started working with VIP right away, and the first thing that came to my mind was this course I taught Dr. Quarto had followed. I looked around for another curriculum rather than reinventing one, and I found its best. So we modeled it after the training his company provides.
maddie: Have you found many other EV 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.]
maddie: Are you walking me through the nuts 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 web-based training – we all did that web-based training first – and then Dr. Quarto hands-on class for a week. That was in Dec. And I think as we go along, I’m going to break that big class into smaller pieces. Because it was a lot of web based training before we got started. If we can break it down into systems, I think that can be offered to the general public a lot easier.
maddie: Can you highlight a few things that mechanics teaches in the course?
Ruth: Certainly. We went through the safety systems first – we understood how they worked and checked that they were working properly. And then we did battery testing and balancing or reconditioning. So you can take an older battery and restore it, and it will be much better for many years to come. And then we looked at motor generators and diagnosed them; we looked at power inverters and the air conditioning compressors. Virtually all high voltage systems.
maddie: When it comes to balancing batteries, is it the idea that we can take batteries out of older vehicles and do a heart transplant in a newer vehicle? Or is it more about restoring the battery to stay in the same vehicle?
Ruth: Both. So someone who drives a Prius may notice after five years that their gas mileage has dropped significantly. And that’s because the gas engine drives the powertrain instead of the electric motor, because the battery doesn’t have enough power anymore. So that the battery in that vehicle could be overhauled and returned to its original condition. And then the gas mileage would go back to 45 [mpg] or whatever it started with. And one of the things we did in our class was get some batteries from a salvage yard and recondition them.
maddie: What kind of feedback have you received on the course from the people who took the course?
Ruth: The VIP of the company, the technicians learned a lot. They are ready to set up these services in their stores. They have plenty of hybrids, Priuses come through their stores regularly. They could sell these services: the maintenance services, the predictive maintenance and the repair services. It is applicable knowledge that they can offer to their customers.
maddie: Do you have additional courses planned for later this year?
Ruth: Yes, with the grant we have to train more people. I think we said it would be about a hundred people. By the time we’re done in a year or so, we’ll start offering courses outside of our regular curriculum. So that would mainly be in the summer and maybe again next year during our winter break.
maddie: The right to repair movement has played a pretty big role in opening up the landscape of independent auto repair, but some repair proponents are concerned that with the EV transition, new repair limitations may begin to emerge. Are the mechanics you speak with specific challenges when repairing electric cars? Are there any restrictions on these vehicles, or vehicle data they don’t get from manufacturers, making repair more difficult? Is that something you worry about in the future?
Ruth: I haven’t run into a problem yet. But yeah, I mean, it’s always a problem. As an auto technician, trying to get the substantial information you need and the diagnostic information is always a problem. [EVs] will certainly have the same challenge.