New Horizons

Neil Pattemore looks at current automotive technology

Published:  18 May, 2016

You will be very familiar with the increasingly sophisticated vehicle technology as more and more software related functions are implemented by the vehicle manufacturers, yet this creates a range of challenges when repairing the vehicle.

In the past it was entirely possible to work on ‘anything that came through the door’, but this is less and less feasible. The risk of not having the competence and the equipment needed to work on any vehicle is both high and increasingly expensive, plus there is the risk of not being able to complete the job without making a mistake, or simply within a timescale which is chargeable to the customer – either way you will not make money. This is likely to lead to greater levels of specialisation.

Sophisticated technology

However, this increasing level of vehicle technology has also brought greater levels of ‘pass through programming’, where the vehicle is directly connected to the vehicle manufacturer’s website and new software for re-programming, coding or updating is directly uploaded into the vehicle, allowing replacement components to be coded and activated, or even new ECUs to be programmed without having to take the vehicle to a main dealer. Of course, this comes with an associated cost of both the equipment (standardised vehicle communication interface – VCI) and the cost of accessing the vehicle manufacturer’s software. This may get even more expensive if vehicle manufacturers get their way and only provide access for pre-verified test equipment via the 16-pin connector or via their websites on a pay-by-use basis. This is already becoming a reality with some vehicle manufacturers and is increasingly likely to be the case with many others as telematics systems become commonplace with their associated security requirements restricting access to in-vehicle data via the 16-pin connector.

So vehicle sophistication now includes driver aids, such as active braking, lane departure warning, driver alert systems and many more. All of these systems are designed to reduce accidents, but with this reduction, there is a direct reduction in the associated crash repair work. The latest version of these driver aids now means that cars can park themselves and even drive themselves (see Tesla, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo videos on YouTube) with Volvo claiming that no one will die in one of their cars by 2020. This is quite possibly achievable if you include the ‘Intelligent Transport system’ (ITS) deployment where cars communicate with each other and with the infrastructure around them to reduce congestion and actively avoid accidents. This is the new world of automated cars – not to be confused with the new world of autonomous cars – where the car is designed to operate without any driver input at all.

Self-driving

Autonomous cars lead into a whole new scenario of car ownership and social expectations. Most of us enjoy working on cars and the ability to drive them, but increasingly, young people do not see car ownership in the same way. Cars are now too difficult to work on as a private owner and renting is becoming much more attractive than outright purchase. In this case the owner is the vehicle manufacturer (or their finance company) and the service and repair work is included in the price of the contract, so is controlled by the vehicle manufacturer and is put through their main dealer network.

Additionally, cars are seen as a mode of transport and not as an aspirational object of desire, as was the case in the past. The European Commission announced in October 2011 that by 2020, they wanted to double the number of people using public transport, so although many new vehicles are still being made and sold, the way that they are serviced and repaired is changing, as is the way that transport in general is being viewed.

New vehicles are also different in the way that they are powered, with electric and hydrogen vehicles becoming not only more popular, but also more affordable and practical as everyday transport. The knock-on effect is that these vehicle types require specialist technician training and fewer service parts, assuming that you actually see them in your workshop, as a high proportion (that is well above the normal three year period for more conventional cars) are taken back to main dealers.

Further challenges

Another threat that will keep more vehicles in main dealer’s workshops is telematics. This remote access to the vehicle and its data is already installed on many new cars, but will become mandatory under the eCall Regulation from May 2018 for all new vehicle types. The telematics system allows vehicle manufacturers (not their dealers) to access in-vehicle data for diagnostics, predictive maintenance and many other services, as well as allowing them to communicate directly with the driver to offer service or repair offers, meaning that you may never even see the vehicle in your workshop.

The advantage of telematics will become even more important once the Block Exemption Regulation (BER) ends in 2023. This means that the existing contracts between the vehicle manufacturer and their dealer network expire and will allow the vehicle manufacturer to negotiate with new partners to provide service and repair – equally meaning that many existing main dealers will become more multibrand service providers. As I have said before, the independent aftermarket will contract, but the fewer garages will be better trained and equipped and will compete more directly with main dealers who in turn will become more like good independents.

On top of all of this, there is increasing requirement to type approve more replacement parts and components to ensure vehicles continue to meet their original type approval compliance, leading to a restriction in choice and higher costs of some parts.

The European Commission is currently looking into the future of the automotive industry in their ‘Gear 2030’ program where representatives of a wide range of industry participants are involved, not only to understand how the vehicle manufacturers can be competitive in a world market, but also how the European Aftermarket can continue to survive and thrive. This is not going to be a simple discussion!

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