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What’s a mechanic to do when electric cars bring less work?

Jed Kim Aug 30, 2017
Matthew Moreno works on a vehicle at a Valvoline Instant Oil Change in Los Angeles. Jed Kim/Marketplace

What’s a mechanic to do when electric cars bring less work?

Jed Kim Aug 30, 2017
Matthew Moreno works on a vehicle at a Valvoline Instant Oil Change in Los Angeles. Jed Kim/Marketplace

Most informed drivers know they don’t have to change their engine oil every 3,000 miles, as the dealer might suggest. Conventional wisdom has put the rate of changes at 5,000 miles and for more recent vehicles, closer to 10,000 miles. Someday engine oil changes could be a forgotten practice as electric vehicles, which don’t require engine oil, take over the market. There are a whole lot of mechanical changes coming to vehicles, and that means big impacts to the industry that keeps those vehicles running.

Mechanics are coming around to the electric vehicle revolution at their own pace. That means for the moment, it’s possible to see the full range of responses on a single street.

Take Hyperion Avenue in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles. Along one stretch stands Hyperion Auto Repair, a neighborhood garage that Alex Baltaian has owned for nearly two decades. He learned how to fix cars from “uncles, father, trade school and then work.”

Alex Baltaian is the owner of Hyperion Auto Repair, a shop he has run for nearly 20 years in Los Angeles.

He figures that work has spanned about 35 years. Baltaian is one of those mechanics that customers recommend to their friends. They love him. He loves cars.

“I love how they look; I love how they sound; I love how they drive,” he said.

But a lot of the things he loves about cars are tied to the internal combustion engine. He said he knows electric vehicles are the future, but he’s not too concerned.

“I’ll learn to work on electrical cars,” Baltaian said. “To be honest, I’m 54 years old. I’m thinking another five more years, and I’ll retire. So, the gasoline cars will be around that long, so I’ll be OK.”

The exposed valve cover of a Mercedes SUV hints at the complexity of an internal combustion engine.

Just a few blocks further down Hyperion Avenue stands a bright red, sleek garage that’s getting a jump-start on the future: Electric Avenue.

“We’re trying to be a part of this amazing change to hybrid and electric cars,” said Harry Bakchajian, who opened the place about a year ago. Like Baltaian, cars run in his blood. His dad has a traditional shop.

On a recent Monday, some of his employees were changing the transmission on a hybrid vehicle. The staff also changes a lot of belts, replaces water pumps — work that may seem familiar to most seasoned mechanics. Right now, most electric car repairs get done at the dealer. Bakchajian is ramping up his shop’s expertise to offer an alternative.

“Hopefully, in a year or two, we should be on top of everything electric,” he said. “It takes time, because the dealer doesn’t release some of the software. You’ve got to get it slowly as they release it, but we’re gonna be at the forefront whenever we can be.”

Harry Bakchajian owns Electric Avenue, a mechanics shop that specializes in repairs on hybrid and electric vehicles.

Servicing electric cars is a different business proposition from what most mechanics know, according to Tony Seba, co-founder of RethinkX, a think tank on disruption that has researched the impact of electric and self-driving vehicles.

“The electric vehicle has about 20 moving parts and the internal combustion automobile engine has about 2,000,” Seba said. He said electric vehicle parts get less wear than those in gasoline vehicles, which provide locomotion through explosive force. “Even those parts that do need to be changed, they need to be changed far less than with internal combustion engine automobile,” Seba said.

He said the low-maintenance model of electric vehicles means thousands and thousands of repair shops will close.

“You have about 4,000 department store locations that do services,” Seba said. “You have 16,000 dealer repair locations and you have something like 70,000 general kind of mom-and-pop repair shops. And essentially, most of these are going to be wiped out.”

Cars of the future will still need repairs on things like brakes, suspension and windshield wipers. A short distance from the Electric Avenue garage, one business is banking on a model that does those things fast.

At a Valvoline Instant Oil Change location, the action was unceasing by a team designed to get cars out the door as quickly as possible. Workers called out instructions to each other and tag-teamed service needs while car drivers sat in their vehicles. While its key offering — that “instant oil change” for which the company is named — won’t even be needed in electric cars, company representatives are confident it can adapt.

Workers at a Valvoline Instant Oil Change provide maintenance on vehicles in Los Angeles.

William Smelley, vice president of marketing and sales for Henley Enterprises, Valvoline’s largest franchise, said similar fears were stoked by hybrid vehicles about a decade ago.

“We went from never doing those to, “Oh, my gosh, now there’s hybrids. Are you going to be able to do those?’” Smelley said. “We do all those vehicles, so it’ll just change.”

He said it’s the “instant” that brings in customers more than the “oil change” part.

“It’s just staying relevant,” he said. “Our goal is customer service and customers’ time, and that’s how we’ll evolve.”

That sentiment was echoed by executives within Valvoline’s corporate office.

“The focus of our service, I believe, will stay rapid service and trying to please our customers, which is one of our primary objectives,” said Fran Lockwood, chief technical officer for Valvoline.

How long might the company keep the words “oil change” in its name?  

“That’s something that’s yet to be determined,” said Heidi Matheys, Valvoline’s chief marketing officer.

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