Anyone who has spent time in a new car or tried a spot of DIY repair on their new pride and joy can attest, the technology on everyday vehicles has evolved at an astonishing rate.

With radars and cameras now used for a variety of safety features and diagnostics, plus a large amount of diagnostic information being fed back to the driver, it seems nearly every aspect of a car now has a mini computer attached. This has understandably had a flow-on effect on to those tasked with fixing our cars.

According to an Auto Skills Australia discussion paper, Future Trade Skills in Automotive in 2020 and Beyond, the role of those who fix and maintain our cars has changed significantly, and will continue to change in the future.

Despite the internal-combustion engine expected to remain the most common form of powerplant in vehicles for at least the short term, the paper’s author, Auto Skills Australia research analyst Steve Bletsos, said the introduction of hybrid and battery-powered vehicles and the increase of complex electrical safety, diagnostic and comfort features had thrown up a number of challenges throughout the motoring industry, including the auto-repair field.

“Today, most automotive systems, such as engines, braking, transmission, steering systems and even the glovebox light are controlled primarily by computers and electronic components, ” he said. “With the introduction of microprocessors into just about every aspect of a vehicle’s operation, there has been a shift over the last decade in automotive workshop servicing operations away from the mechanical servicing, repairing and overhauling, and more towards electronic diagnostics and parts replacement.”

Mr Bletsos said there would likely be a skills shortage in many areas of the auto industry but highlighted the diagnostics and troubleshooting field as a key skills gap.

“With changes in vehicle technology, problem analysis and diagnostics have become highly sophisticated and involve the ability to use special tools and instruments, interpret the results and take corrective action, ” he said.

These technological advancements have already seen big changes in auto repair.

According to Premier Motors group servicing manager Chris Lickfold, the day-to-day operations of a workshop now are a world away from when he did his apprenticeship in the early 1980s, with many workplaces looking more like laboratories because of their spotless floors and rows of computers.

“Our Volvos get hooked up to the internet and the vehicles are interrogated by Sweden, ” he said.

“If the computers inside the car are out of date they’ll update them and the technicians need to be aware of what’s going in.

“As for the other service adjustments we do, the oil change and whatnot is probably 10 per cent of the service cost. The rest of it comes down to the technologies in the vehicle.”

Having worked for Volvo for the past 23 years, Mr Lickfold said he had to attend training events four or five times every year just to keep abreast of the new technologies being introduced by Volvo alone, with each new individual model itself also requiring its own in-depth training and coming with repair manuals and wiring diagrams several hundred pages long.

“This, ” he said while holding up the several-inches-thick manual for the new V40, “is a three-day training course just for us to be brought up to speed with what’s going on in this vehicle.

“Every new car that comes out we’re pretty well guaranteed there are going to be 750 pages of text we need to read through just to familiarise ourselves with the car. That’s the complexity of the vehicles nowadays.”

Also of issue is that much of the technology being put into cars is specific to the company that manufactures it. Given the depth of know-how now required to adequately service one brand of car, Motor Trade Association of WA chief executive Stephen Moir conceded independent mechanics would need to adapt to ensure they could offer a service comparable to dealerships.

“There is quite a heated debate happening in Australia in regards to technical data being made available from manufacturers to repair vehicles, ” he said.

“About 95 per cent of information required to repair vehicles is available to independent repairers, so I don’t see a time when independent repairers won’t be doing logbook services.

“Australia is the most competitive car market in the world. There are over 60 manufacturers represented in Australia and over 380 different models.

“I think what will have to happen is it’s simply not practical for a small independent repairer to be able to adequately repair all 60-plus manufacturers.

“So I think what you’ll see is more ‘niche-ing’ and specialising across certain brands. That has to happen in the industry for businesses to be able to survive going into the future.”

© The West Australian

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