DETROIT — As sales of electric vehicles (EVs) grow, so do the demands on dealerships to maintain and repair them. Meeting these expectations requires substantial dealer investment in special tools, equipment, processes and technician training.
Dealerships are getting some help from auto makers as they prepare to work on ever-increasing numbers of EVs, but many say they are concerned about how providing EV service will affect their fixed-ops profits.
Nissan dealerships in the U.S. have sold the Leaf EV since 2010. To work on the car, service departments must have the right kind of lift in order to remove the Leaf's high-voltage battery safely. Some shops also buy a forklift designed to lift heavier EV equipment such as battery packs, JeSean Hopkins, Nissan North America's senior manager of EV infrastructure and sales operations, said.
That's just the beginning.
Service departments must create dedicated bays in their shops for EV service, which requires charging stations. Some service technicians work only on electric vehicles; all techs who deal with EVs require special gloves and eye equipment.
Ted Christiano, general manager of Boulder Nissan, in Colorado, said he has spent about $110,000 to prepare his service department for EV work. The expenditure has been worthwhile, he insists.
"The amount of volume we do more than makes up for the investment," Mr. Christiano said.
He notes that of the 682 new vehicles his university-town dealership sold in 2018, 312 were Leafs.
Keep it simple
Ford Motor Co. says a typical Ford dealership can expect to invest $13,000 in repair equipment for EVs. David Johnson, Ford's global executive director of service engineering operations, said the biggest-ticket items are a lift table to remove and install the heavy battery, and a recovery charger.
"We are trying to make it as simple and easy as possible for our dealerships so they don't have to invest a significant amount," Mr. Johnson says.
George Goddu, lead for aftersales strategy on Ford's Team Edison, a division dedicated to EV planning, added that the auto maker has made a "concerted effort" to allow dealerships to use existing tools whenever possible.
Charging stations are the most expensive item dealerships must install to service electric vehicles. They come in several versions. Level 2, or 240-volt, chargers are slower but less expensive than DC fast chargers.
Mr. Goddu said Ford worked with its supplier to reduce by 35% the cost of the charging stations its dealerships are required to buy. The chargers work for other auto makers' EVs as well.
Randy Haron, general manager of Haron Jaguar Land Rover, in Fresno, Calif., said he spent $100,000 to prepare the new dealership to sell and service EVs. Half of that amount was for seven charging stations — two fast chargers and five Level 2 chargers.
The Jaguar I-Pace is the only EV the dealership sells, but more electric models are coming soon, Mr. Haron said. "We chose to add more (charging stations) than necessary, based on the future needs of our customers and the adoption of EVs," he said.
Nissan dealerships are required to install Level 2 chargers, according to Mr. Hopkins. The number of chargers required by the auto maker depends on a dealership's EV sales volume.
Nissan USA has invested $60 million in EV infrastructure, Mr. Hopkins added, including financial support for fast charging. In the U.S., 388 of Nissan's 1,048 dealerships have DC chargers. EV owners also can use the dealership chargers.
Service techs at Nissan dealerships require special training, including a class on working with high-voltage electricity and Nissan-specific courses. The auto maker has 11 U.S. training centers for EV instruction.
Dealers support the cost of this training and pay for techs' transportation and lodging to attend the centers, Mr. Hopkins said. The training can take as much as eight months, depending on a tech's experience and course availability. It leads to certification by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and other industry groups.
"It is a significant commitment of time and resources to get a tech through the curriculum," Mr. Hopkins said.
Audi Cuyahoga Falls, part of Cascade Auto Group in Northeast Ohio, pays a monthly fee for ongoing web-based training for each certified electric-vehicle tech, according to Michelle Primm, the group's managing partner. The dealership also pays costs related to off-site training by Audi.
Audi A.G. said it plans to launch 30 battery-driven electric vehicles by 2025. Cascade has sold six Audi e-tron SUVs, which went on sale in mid-2019.
Ms. Primm is remodeling a warehouse on the Cascade campus as an Audi service center that will repair and maintain EVs as well as traditional powertrains. She said she is planning for a high electric load to the building to accommodate EV charging.
"It's not cheap, but it's cheaper to do it now than to have to go back and do it," Ms. Primm said.
Working with local utilities to acquire permits to install electric chargers can be "very challenging" for dealerships, Mr. Hopkins said.
As EV batteries get larger, it's hard for utilities to "wrap their heads around" the electricity load needed to charge them, he said.
The latest DC chargers have power levels of as much as 350 kilowatts. Eight such chargers at a dealership are the "equivalent of a Walmart" in electricity consumption, according to Mr. Hopkins.
Another challenge for service departments is deciding where to store high-voltage batteries while EVs are worked on. Handled improperly, the batteries can release toxic chemicals and even explode.
"The manufacturers need to come up with game plans for storage, safe handling and safe charging, before 10,000 zoning departments make 10,000 decisions for them," Ms. Primm said.
Some auto makers design batteries with modules that can be removed for repairs to avoid having to store an entire battery. Audi's e-tron and Ford's new Mustang Mach-E have modular batteries.
Planning dealership EV service often calls for out-of-the-box — and even out-of-the-store — thinking. Karl Zerrenner, general manager of Volkswagen of Pasadena, in Southern California, says he is looking at offering mobile repair of EVs, sending techs to owners' homes or workplaces.
EV owners, especially, want that convenience, he said, and EVs don't require messy oil changes.
"If you had asked me two years ago if I would have considered outfitting a van to service a vehicle, I would have laughed," Mr. Zerrenner said.
He also is looking at building a separate dealership to sell and service EVs on a Pasadena site he has bought. In Pasadena, Volkswagen's primary marketing area, EVs account for 10 percent of new-vehicle sales, according to Mr. Zerrenner.
He concedes he is apprehensive about losing service revenue because EVs are likely to require far fewer repairs than gasoline-powered cars and trucks.
"I think the biggest unknown and concern most of us have is what do we still have remaining to sell?" he said.
At Boulder Nissan, though, customer retention makes up for any loss of income from servicing EVs, according to Mr. Christiano.
EV owners "aren't going to take that car to an independent repair shop," he said. "It doesn't have the technology or the parts."