Are cars smarter than the technicians who work on them?

This piece arrived in my inbox a few days ago. I’ll keep the author’s name anonymous for the time being (he can identify himself if he wishes).

It’s an interesting piece that might surprise, scare and maybe even offend a few people. Reactions aside, this is from an inside perspective, from a guy I’ve met and who I know is in a position to form an opinion on the subject.

I’ve seen Saab’s training courses in action, in Sweden, and I know that representatives get educated on the different electronic systems in the cars. The key might be whether that knowledge sinks in and trickles down to others in the dealerships.

It makes for some very interesting reading.

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I started my career as an entry level Saab technician around a decade ago, working for a dealer in New Hampshire. Over my 4-5 years as a technician I learned that cars are complicated creatures including a huge amount of both mechanical and electrical content.

Back then the 9-3’s and 9-5’s that were out didn’t really have all the electronics that the newer cars have. They had ECM’s and transmission control modules, etc, but they still had a lot of old school wiring (power and ground, pin connectors). When the 9-3 sport sedan came out in 2003 I knew that we were going to run into a huge problem in the automotive industry and it was going to happen really fast.

All of a sudden the older technicians, paid on seniority and experience and making $25-30 an hour (shop foremen, guys that have been turning wrenches for 20-30 years) were clueless and scratching their heads. For the first few years they would pretend that they knew what they were doing, suggesting software updates as the fix for all problems. If the car came back, hell… let’s throw a control module at it.

By 2005 I decided that I loved the cars, the auto industry and where it was heading, but I really didn’t like getting dirty or covered in grease and busting my knuckles. It’s fun as a hobby but certainly not as a career for me. I switched paths and became a service advisor at a different Saab dealership. Being a computer savvy, well spoken, educated misfit, I was well aware of what I was seeing: the new cars/technology would baffle our highest paid technicians AND the newbies that were learning the trade from the older technicians.

Keep in mind that Saab was always a little behind on technology and I can imagine that this is an industry wide epidemic (e.g. Ford with Sync technology, everyone with nav units, Bluetooth). When the new 9-5 came out in 2010, there was no doubt that it was a wonderful marvel of technology, but there was also little doubt that we are neck-deep into a major problem in the repair industry.

Picture this – your super high tech new car is going into a dealership or shop and a senior technician getting $30/hr is going to work on it. This technician….

  1. types with one finger,
  2. has a flip cell phone and
  3. just started using email a couple years ago.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. These guys may be qualified to trace a wiring short in a 30 wire harness or drop a tranny on a car in 3 hours but are they really the right guys to take apart a $50,000 technical masterpiece?

You might be thinking “OK, let’s have the younger, computer savvy technicians work on these newer cars.”

But wait, these younger techs may have smart phones and use facebook, but let’s face it, a lot of them are in the industry because their parents were, or they loved turning wrenches with their dads. They probably didn’t do particularly well in school. They probably aren’t super computer savvy, and the guys that were helping them along at being technicians are now just as baffled as they are. Like I said, major problem.

I sadly don’t see any major fix for this in the near future. I find myself as a service advisor helping customers with Bluetooth phone pairing and navigation questions more knowledgeable than the technicians. Some of the customers driving these marvels probably have a better understanding of how they work than the technicians (being computer science graduates and electrical engineers.. etc etc).

So the question I raise is “Are Cars Smarter than Technicians?”

Yes. Plain and simple, sad but true. The guys we now pay $30/hr because we don’t have a solution to the problem are now simply parts replacers or “guessers”. They can barely figure out how to use the laptops and diagnostic tools and instead of getting trained they stumble through it and run straight time punches and expect manufacturers to pay for their lack of modern knowledge.

I think that in the near future, dealerships will have to acknowledge this and have one, highly paid, college-educated electrical engineer/software engineer on board to work with the next generation of technicians. The old guys will grunt and try to push them out and continue stumbling but a change is going to be necessary.

With hybrid technology and electric cars growing and evolving, the technician as we know it may disappear and this may be a good thing for everyone. I think people need to start taking this seriously. Hopefully some ongoing factory training will help keep techs – the ones willing to learn – up to date on the latest technology, but maybe the flat rate days need to be over. When you put someone in a position to earn 80hrs in a 40hr work week or get computer training to keep up to date they are going to continue to choose ‘guessing’ and take the 80hrs. After guessing and throwing parts at it, these cars will keep coming back until they happen to guess the right part or software update.

So, in summary, cars are definitely smarter than technicians…. and the auto industry is just getting started. In 10 years from now, cars may be smarter than all of us!

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10 Comments

  1. Ouch.
    I am grateful my tech is sharp and understans “theory” behind the car infrastructure. He is frequently consulted by other shops.

  2. Is there a point when new technology isn’t really worth it anymore? I’m no ludite, but I have to ask, do I really need self parking? I mean, come on, people!

  3. Being a Service Adviser once upon a time and working in a dealership from 1992 to 2000 I tend to agree with the assessment.

    50% or more of the techs were baffled, lost and confused when it come to the electronics in “fine British vehicles”. You ended up having one or two techs that could stumble their way through electronics. After a while they resented having to diagnose all the electrical problems in the shop.

    The mechanics who worked on the German vehicles were better though faced a lot of the same challenges when it came to electronics.

    This is a challenge and issue that has been in the industry for a long time. Yes more training and practical experience will help.

    Mechanics are mechanics, they are not electrical engineers.

    Saying that there are some bright young techs with a good understanding of electrical systems and diagnosing problems and faults.

    This challenge is only going to get worse as vehicles become more and more sophisticated.

  4. Part of the problem is that cars aren’t as smart as they pretend to be. Software systems are self-diagnosing, but they only for “expected” errors. The really tough problems are things like a bad processor in an actuator sending out spurious data which then gets interpreted in a strange way by a seemingly unrelated module. In other words, “we fixed your high beams by replacing a door lock.” Good luck explaining that to a customer.

    I agree with what you wrote about the generational change, but you should know that this change has been going on for a very long time. In the mid 1980s, when I first started driving, there were mechanics who understood fuel injection and mechanics who knew how to rebuild carburettors, but very few mechanics who could do both.

  5. Some older and some younger mechanics will never get it , you need to be a little bit OCD to take the time needed to properly diognose any car . Be like water and conform to the situation . CAN is new yes but if you develop the skill to work with it even old dogs ( a few ) will still be able to do proper repair the first time , I love the new tech but few do understand it sadly . However even in the 80’s there were parts hangers , and they still dont get it . I learn something new every day and at 59 I belive I still do proper repair , and advisement .

    1. A P.S. to my comment I do not belive in the flat rate system , it encourages sloppy work ,rushing jobs out the door and little reward for the mechanic who does proper repair .

  6. Interesting read… As I teach these new kids to fix these modern mechanical wonders – I would say the “best” technician has a strong understanding of basic mechanical principles, is a critical thinker, and can analyze how (electrical) systems interact with each other and can troubleshoot them on a basic level (once analyzed – you need to keep things simple, because they are).

    With that in mind – the car is not smarter; you just have to be able to get it “talk to you.” And technicians who can do this (by analyzing data from various systems) can repair complex problems in a timely manner – and also separate the mechanical from the electrical.

    As for this analysis –

    “I think that in the near future, dealerships will have to acknowledge this and have one, highly paid, college-educated electrical engineer/software engineer on board to work with the next generation of technicians.”

    It is good to have a few top gun technicians in the shop, but it is more logical to bring everyone up to an above average level by encouraging training and making sure guys (and gals) participate in it.

    And the most important thing we can do now is encourage mentors to work with younger technicians so they can pass down their “legacy knowledge” to the next generations of technicians. Apprenticeship programs (and their value) need to be re-examined by manufacturers. Over the past 10 years many automakers have let training standards fumble as they had a solid group of guys. This is starting to become a problem as technicians retire and there is nobody to take their place and train them or “show them the ropes.”

    New cars are expensive and customers demand quality service and a vehicle that is fixed right the first time by an experienced craftsman. Manufactures that ignore this will gain customers in the short term with new and exciting models – but will lose them long term if the customer loses faith in the vehicle. Look at all the Camry’s sold here ever year. Those customers did not flock to Toyota for styling or performance – they came from manufacturers that produced poor quality products. And technicians can add to this if they cannot fix something right the first time (we lost a lot of customers at the dealer I worked at for this reason). Toyota builds a good product and they have really solid training in house training. GM and Ford have let this wane and they are having a hard time staffing service bays now because of this.

    Compensating technicians is a whole other issue… We can tackle that one later. 🙂

  7. Look to the aircraft industry for a parallel here. Mostly the avionics are a primary system where the hardware is secondary. Cars need to be viewed in the same way. Everything is electronically controlled, from the throttle response to the reversing camera. This is what the media tells the consumer what they think they need so new models can be sold to keep the factory running. Otherwise we would all be ‘dying’ to drive around in an MGB. By the way I typed all this with one finger….

  8. I tend to agree, but the SAAB Master Techs I know (and techs for other marques), have been to many company run schools for electronics training, as well as other technical areas.

    It is up to the dealership to make sure their employees are kept up to date on the latest technology. And that includes the sales people as well. Sadly…many of them haven’t a clue. I know, because I ran a SAAB store for many years as a General Manager, and have also worked as a tech.

  9. Not smarter. Machines are not smart, its just that humans can make them do smart stuff.

    Cars are an interesting intersection between many forms of engineering, primarily mechanical and electronic. This is the where the difficulties start. Furthermore, knowledge can usually be either broad or deep: rarely both. Its impossible to be an expert in everything – which is why I always prefer specialist guys who focus on one marque and don’t pretend to know everything about everything.

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