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As EV sales soar, it’s back to school for car techs

Craig Van Batenburg, CEO of Automotive Career Development Center, stands next to a 2011 Nissan Leaf. The ACDC trains people to repair electric vehicles.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Craig Van Batenburg doesn’t care much for Tesla’s electric cars. But that didn’t stop him from recently paying $58,000 for a 2020 Tesla Model 3. After all, it’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

Van Batenburg owns ACDC, the Automotive Career Development Center, a Worcester company that trains technicians how to maintain and repair electric and hybrid vehicles.Van Batenburg says he’s trained about 18,000 auto technicians in the US and Europe since 2000, including about a thousand who learned to fix all-electric cars.

But with millions of electrics headed for US roads by 2030, there aren’t nearly enough trained technicians to keep them running. Which is why at age 71, Van Batenburg’s work has barely begun.

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“It is the biggest change we’ve had in the history of cars, no doubt,” he said.

EVs are easier to maintain than cars that run on internal combustion engines. There’s no oil to change, and brake pads and rotors last far longer because the electric motor does a lot of the braking. In all, car insurer AAA estimates that annual maintenance for an EV is $330 less than for a gasoline machine.

But an EV’s complex electrical components and software require special skills. And because their high-voltage batteries can cause fatal electric shocks, or even burst into flames, technicians must know how to handle them. Auto dealerships, vehicle fleet operators, and independent car repair shops will need thousands of properly trained workers as the nation’s vehicle fleet electrifies.

For now, the talent pool is pretty shallow. According to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which runs testing and certification programs for car repair specialists, there are about 229,000 ASE-certified car technicians in the US. But only about 3,100 are certified to work on electric vehicles.

Van Batenburg, who helped create the ASE certification test for electric cars, is working fast to expand the talent pool. It’s not just good business; Van Batenburg is a true believer in clean energy.

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“For 50 years, I’ve been a technician worried about the environment,” he said. “That’s a unicorn in this business.”

He started out working on Honda motorcycles in 1970. Then he learned how to repair the earliest Honda automobiles, and opened a repair shop that specialized in the company’s vehicles. Honda cars gained a foothold in the US through an obsessive focus on fuel economy.

When the Japanese automaker introduced its first hybrid car in 1999, Van Batenburg bought one and learned how to fix it. By 2000, he was offering classes to other technicians. His former car repair shop became ACDC. He didn’t choose the name for its association with electricity, but only because “it’s first on the list when I go to a trade show.”

Hundreds of experienced technicians have passed through ACDC’s courses on hybrid and electric vehicles, priced at $1,000 a day and usually paid for by employers. In addition, Van Batenburg has offered multi-day classes in cities throughout the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands.

He didn’t offer training on Tesla EVs, because the company did not provide a “scan tool,” a digital device that lets technicians view trouble codes from the vehicle’s computer systems. But recently Tesla changed this policy. Van Batenburg paid $3,000 for the scan tool, bought the used Tesla, and will add it to the curriculum in September.

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“They’re a great software company,” Van Batenburg said of Tesla. But he doesn’t care for the fit and finish of Tesla’s hardware, and gripes there’s no room for a spare in the trunk. His personal ride is a Niro, an EV made by South Korea’s Kia. “The build quality is better than Tesla,” he said. “It’s my favorite car, easy.”

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Van Batenburg plans to enlarge the ACDC facility so he can squeeze in more classes. But he can only do so much. Vocational high schools and community colleges are the traditional training ground for auto technicians. And they’re only just beginning to gear up for the EV age.

Boston’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School worked with Van Batenburg to set up an EV maintenance course. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has pledged to replace the Boston Public Schools’ entire fleet of school buses with electric vehicles by 2030, and the Madison Park program will ensure that city technicians will know how to keep the new buses running.

Other schools are further behind. David Protano, dean of the automotive technology department at MassBay Community College in Wellesley, said the school doesn’t yet have an electric car for students to work on, though it is in talks with a major automaker which may provide one.

“Some manufacturers are hesitant to donate the vehicles to us, because of safety reasons,” Protano said. The high-voltage lithium-ion battery in an EV is powerful enough to electrocute a careless student — a risk that’s nonexistent with fossil-fuel cars.

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Even automakers are scrambling to provide EV training to the service staff at their dealerships. For instance, automaker Nissan has high hopes for its new Ariya crossover EV, which goes on sale this fall. But many Nissan dealerships have no one on staff who can work on electrics — not even Nissan’s Leaf, which has been on the market for 11 years.

“The number of technicians is a pain point,” said Aditya Jairaj, Nissan US’ director of EV sales and marketing. So the company’s 12 US technician training centers are running crash programs focused specifically on the Ariya, to make sure that every dealership that sells the vehicles can service them.

And then there are the thousands of independent car repair shops. For now, lack of EV training isn’t a major issue for them. Despite all the hoopla, EVs still make up less than 1 percent of the total US vehicle fleet. But as EV numbers swell and vehicles age, the people at local garages must learn to fix them if they want to stay in business.

Van Batenburg said many independents want no part of electrics. “Shop owners are old white men like me,” he said. “They don’t want to do this.” And since internal combustion engine vehicles will be around for decades, many shop owners can spend their entire careers fixing nothing else.

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But don’t count on handing down the business to a son or daughter. Eventually, they’ll run out of conventional cars to fix, and EVs will need far fewer repairs. “In 30 years, we’ll need only about half as many technicians,” Van Batenburg said. “But the technicians will have to be rocket scientists.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.