Can the Automotive Industry Adapt Fast Enough for an Electric Future?

By Sarah Watts

Twenty years ago, you had a better chance of seeing an electric car on an episode of The Jetsons than you did in real life.

Today, however, electric cars are inching closer to the mainstream, with 5.4 million hybrid vehicles sold since the Honda Insight debuted in 1999 and over 1.4 million plug-in electric cars sold since 2010. Electric vehicles are poised to explode in the next several years: General Motors, Mercedes, Mazda, Nissan, BMW, Ford, and several other carmakers have pledged to either invest billions in manufacturing electric vehicles (EV) or to roll out multiple all-electric models of their own. And in response to the burgeoning climate change crisis, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order to phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2035.

“The transition to electric has already started, and it will accelerate in the next fifteen years due to a number of factors,” says Samantha Houston, an analyst for the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Climate change is a factor, but also electric vehicles themselves have come a long way in terms of range and cost. The upfront costs for these vehicles and the ownership costs for the consumers are continuing to come down, so they will soon become a lot more widespread.”

But while many in government and the automotive industry seem to be preparing for a fully-electric future, not everyone is on board. States in the northernmost parts of the United States have been slow to adapt, with Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa among the areas with the fewest public EV charging stations in the country.

“Cold temperatures are certainly a factor,” Houston says, when asked why some states are more prepared than others for the coming EV boom. Lithium ion batteries, which power electric vehicles, tend to deplete more quickly in cold weather—and even more so when cars run their heaters. An unfamiliarity with the vehicles, a lack of charging stations, and a fear of losing battery life in cold weather could all contribute to why consumers in some states have been hesitant to jump on board.

The hesitancy extends to mechanics as well. In the UK, a staggering 97 percent of active auto mechanics are unqualified to service electric cars, according to a study from the UK’s Institute of the Motor Industry. While there are no such statistics for the United States, many auto repair experts around the country are reportedly “freaking out.” Craig Van Batenberg, a Massachusetts-based auto mechanic since 1970, said in a 2017 interview, “Ninety percent of our industry has done nothing—absolutely nothing to prepare. They just turn the hybrids and EVs away and say, ‘We don’t work on those cars…’ The fear factor is huge.”

In addition to the unfamiliarity factor, many mechanics are fearing they could soon be out of a job, since electric vehicles have fewer moving parts than diesel- and gas-powered cars and therefore require less maintenance. And without regular maintenance, independent automotive shops—which depend on things like oil changes to keep their business afloat—could be in trouble.

Rather than an industry disaster, however, Houston says the switch to electric cars could be “a huge opportunity” for independent auto shops and mechanics alike. “Electric vehicles have a different power train and many are unfamiliar with that, but that’s not an insurmountable problem,” she says. “Certainly there could be an opportunity for repair shops to be knowledgeable in, or even specialize in, electric vehicles, with some training.”

To fix this problem, Houston says, auto makers need to put their money where their mouth is. “It’s incumbent upon them to change, but it’s also to their benefit,” she says. “Automakers really need to invest in EV model development, manufacturing, advertising, but also workforce development—the people making and servicing these vehicles. The transition to EV will create good job opportunities, and we really need to make sure mechanics can participate in that.”

Before the events of 2020, businesses may not have been prepared to prioritize such training opportunities. But the pandemic has inspired a new outlook, according to a new study on the future of work. In its pre-lockdown survey, most organizations did not consider ‘reskilling’ a priority; but more than 70 percent of respondents to the follow-up survey cited the heightened importance of adaptability, digital skills, problem-solving, and risk management moving forward.

While there remain unknowns about how EVs will affect the automotive industry in the upcoming years, one thing that is clear is that they are here to stay. “They’re here today, and they’re only going to become more widespread,” says Houston. “They’re the future, and we all need to be prepared.”