Fixing Automated Vehicles

As automated vehicles slowly populate selected urban areas, the question persists: Who will repair and maintain these robotic and technological marvels? "It's not something that immediately comes to mind when we think about all the research and development that comes with automated driving," says Kay Stepper, vice president of driver assistance systems and automated driving at Robert Bosch.

As a first mover in automated vehicle technology, Bosch is addressing a need that might be five or 10 years from reaching critical mass. But automakers, dealers, industry groups and academics agree that a significant gap exists in education and marketing of careers for automated vehicle service technicians.

For the past 18 months at Stepper's direction, Bosch has opened its automated vehicle testing labs in Plymouth, Mich., to electronics students from Schoolcraft College in nearby Livonia.

Classroom learning, reinforced by hands-on exposure to software and electrical integration of sensors in automated vehicle prototypes, is creating job opportunities beyond those that require four-year and graduate degrees. Bosch has hired about 10 Schoolcraft students with two-year associate degrees and is continuing their education.

"It's a real issue, not just something the automated driving community is doing on the side or for fun," Stepper told Fixed Ops Journal.

Growing awareness

Fixed operations directors at franchised dealerships express awareness, if not yet a sense of urgency, about the need to develop service techs who will work on automated vehicles. Each new model year brings more technology to lower-priced vehicles, along with increased fleet ownership.

"I don't think about it daily, but I do from a long-term planning perspective," says Peter Battle, general manager of the customer service division at Pat Milliken Ford in Redford, Mich.

Mike McLeod, collision director at Matick Chevrolet and Matick Toyota, both in suburban Detroit, says he isn't too concerned yet about an automated vehicle skills gap among technicians. He cites the 11-year-old average age of cars and light trucks on the road and automated technology that remains to be developed.

"It's in the beginning stages and we want to be proactive," McLeod says, "but it's going to take quite a long time to cycle all these current vehicles out."

McLeod says a visit to Tempe, Ariz., where the self-driving car project Waymo and the ride-hailing provider Uber offer automated test rides, convinced him the challenge is not imminent.

"The weather is beautiful out there, but what I am looking at in Michigan is two inches of snow," he says. "How do these vehicles read when the lane markers are covered?"

Crash guys

The greatest need for new knowledge is in body shops, where crash repairs are increasingly more complex than even the most experienced service technicians can handle.

Need to know

What service executives say dealership technicians will have to know to work on automated vehicles

Technology of advanced safety and driver assistance systems

Repair and replacement of sensors

Electrical theory

Information technology

Sensor-based blind-zone and cross-traffic alerts get knocked around in crashes. Advanced driver assistance systems are proliferating in lower-priced vehicles.

Electronic stability control is federally mandated. All new light vehicles will have to have backup cameras by May. And the industry has agreed to make automatic braking and forward collision warning systems standard by 2022.

"We're already starting to see the need for multiple types of technicians," says Jason Bartanen, director of industry technical relations for the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair.

"The collision repair diagnostic person is going to be the one who determines what might be damaged," Bartanen says. "I see them having their own room with scanning tools, proper lighting and calibration targets for aiming."

Replacing a sensor torn off a car's front end and swept up at a crash site can require a body shop diagnostic technician to go far beyond looking up a vehicle identification number to see what advanced driver assistance systems technology was original equipment.

Such fact-finding requires the ability to follow an automaker's flow charts, make sure the replacement sensor is reinstalled exactly and perform static and dynamic calibration.

Greg Potter, executive manager of the Equipment and Tool Institute in Farmington Hills, Mich., foresees a day when a dealership service department will resemble the Genius Bar of an Apple store. Network engineers will work alongside lower-skilled techs who do oil changes and rotate tires, Potter predicts.

"There are so many controllers on a vehicle that have to work with each other," he says. The technician will have to be able to follow increasingly sophisticated diagnostic protocols for what to clean, adjust, repair or replace.

Fulfilling that vision will require a significant transformation of vocational training programs, Potter warns.

"From what I have seen in the junior colleges and high schools, the training for industrial education is way behind what needs to be," he says. "The equipment and instructors are old. They are not teaching electrification, networks."

Add to antiquated instruction the pay structure in auto repair. Students and retrained mechanics who can operate in an advanced technical environment will go where they can earn more money, Potter says.

"Dealerships that offer flat-rate pay, it's hard to make a living," Potter says. "If the guy is that good, there are a lot of technology jobs out there where they can earn better money under better working conditions."

May Mobility, a startup automated vehicle company in Ann Arbor, Mich., expects to launch its first fleet in a central business district or other geographically limited community as soon as midyear.

The company is hiring service technicians who, co- founder Steve Vozar says, "are going to be the connection between the main engineering development and our field office."

Focus on careers

Kristen Tabar, vice president of Toyota Motor North America's Technical Strategy Planning Office, says too little career education is available to aspiring automated vehicle service technicians.

"It doesn't mean you have to be a mathematics genius," Tabar says. "You have to be somebody who likes to solve problems, tinker around and understand a little bit how things work."

Toyota invites middle- and high school students to its r&d center in Ann Arbor. The automaker's partnership with Washtenaw Community College allows Toyota to influence and align curricula to what technicians need to know.

Washtenaw and Macomb community colleges are among 15 Michigan schools that have joined the education consortium formed by the American Center for Mobility, a nonprofit testing and product development operation designed to enable safe validation of connected and automated vehicles. The center, in Ypsilanti Township, Mich., began testing automated vehicles in December.

"Technology is not going to wipe out every job immediately," the center's CEO, John Maddox, says. "But it is going to have a real impact."

Bob Feldmaier was the first chief engineer of the Tesla Model S and before that was a vehicle line engineer for Chrysler. He now directs the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College.

Feldmaier oversees a National Science Foundation grant focused on what he calls "middle-skilled" technician training, including mechanical, electronic and information technology instruction.

The pending associate degree program would serve existing workers who need retraining to get up to date on new skills and technology. Key suppliers such as Bosch, Valeo and Magna are helping with curricula, Feldmaier says.

Car cues

As future technicians are trained to work with automated vehicles, they'll have an advantage: The vehicles will predict when failures of key components are imminent.

"The ability to get real time and historic data off these vehicles is hugely important," says Larry Burns, a former vice president of r&d at General Motors.

"Thinking about fixing something after it's broken is a mistake," Burns says. "You want to make these decisions from the data."

As autonomous and electric vehicles and mobility converge, service will be even more critical. Automated vehicles, especially those owned by fleets rather than individuals, will operate more hours of the day and accumulate twice as many miles as today's cars and trucks before they are replaced.

"We'll have a much better understanding in three to five years what is required to do the service for the vehicles," Burns says. "Lifetime maintenance becomes very, very important, very different from traditional maintenance." Suspension servicing, Burns predicts, "will get the vehicle to 300,000 miles. And every time a person gets out of the car, they will feel better than when they got in."

The hurdles of fixing automated vehicles


Alan L. Adler