Will Mechanics Become Electricians?

A visit to the Pendragon Car Cafe left me pondering on a few things. The first was that you can’t beat a free bacon buttie and coffee to kick off a Saturday morning. Especially while you’ve also got an interesting selection of cars to poke around.

From 50s Americana (a Mercury and Ford V8-powered hotrod) to Italian sports cars (Ferrari 458 and Maserati Granturismo), there was plenty to admire. These were cars brought by the attendees and proved that the Church of Petrolheads is a broad one.

Alongside the owners’ cars were the new models brought by the various dealerships in the Stratstone network, and there were a few choice cars on display. The Citroen DS3 and MINI Cooper S were parked up with a Jaguar F-Type and Aston Martin V8 Vantage N430, with a convertible 911 and Macan S provided by the local Porsche dealer.

The star of the show could have been the new BMW M4 coupé, which looked fantastic in Yas Marina Blue metallic paint. It’s one of the more handsome shapes to have emerged from the BMW stable in some time but it might as well have been a humdrum 3-box saloon parked next to the other arrival from the BMW dealer – the i8.

You’ve probably seen more than a few pictures of the i8 on the internet and in magazines, but it looks even better in the flesh. This is a car that could have been taken straight from the set of a sci-fi film, the complicated arrangement of curves, creases and spectacular scissor doors making it seem like a car from a hundred years in the future rather than here and now.

It’s more than a clever piece of external design too. Underneath the carbon-fibre reinforced plastic shell and bonded aluminium chassis beats an electrical heart. The i8 is a plug-in hybrid with two engines, one electric capable of travelling 22-miles on battery power, the other a 3-cylinder petrol engine that can push the i8 up to 155mph. Together they deliver a 0-62mph time of just 4.4 seconds, lifting the i8 into supercar territory. It’s a technological marvel.

Shortly after gazing at the i8 I was talking to an Audi enthusiast, listening to his ambitious plans for upgrading the original 2.2-litre engine in his mint 90. That’s the sort of job that takes real skill and mechanical knowledge, and that started me wondering what effect this electric revolution is going to have on the DIY enthusiast.

Now I’m slightly better with mechanical stuff than I am at brain surgery, but that’s not saying a lot. I understand the theory but ask me to get my hands dirty and I find myself baffled by a mass of bits and bobs whose function I don’t understand. I do at least know that a few simple checks now and then are essential to keep my car in good running order or spot problems at an early stage.

What about an electric car? What is there to check? There’s no oil, no coolant, just an enclosed unit that keeps its electrical secrets hidden away from prying screwdrivers. Attached to that are controller units, circuit boards, processor chips and electrical connectors that only work with specialist equipment that’s been programmed to talk to the car’s electrical brain. It’s not the sort of thing you can tackle with a spanner.

Suddenly the home mechanic is faced with a completely new challenge. Admittedly electronics have become an increasingly complex part of modern cars but as the internal combustion engine is replaced by battery packs and induction coils it’s starting to look like the mechanics of the future will be more akin to electricians and computer programmers.

Which is going to make it hard if you want to work on your car in the comfort of your own garage but at least the dealers will still be there. Buy an i8 and you could pick one of the BMW servicing packages and let them worry about the electronic bits.

The move to electric cars is going to make it hard for independent garages too, as they have to buy expensive diagnostic equipment and train their mechanics. But will the independents ever see a car like the i8 on their ramps? If you’re buying a car like the i8 you’re going to want to keep a dealer service history to protect it as much as possible from the ravages of depreciation.

Of course, the i8 has still got a lot of mechanical components and, once you’ve got past the electrical cables and circuit boards, there’s still a good old-fashioned petrol engine to play with. As high-tech as it is, the i8 still has brakes and suspension components, familiar chunks of metal held together with nuts and bolts, so the spanners and screwdrivers aren’t ready for retirement just yet.


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Author: Chris Auty

Voted the Breakthrough Blogger of 2013 by SEAT and the Guild of Motoring Writers , Chris has lived and breathed cars since he was old enough to say 'faster'. With a penchant for hot hatches and an allergy to public transport, he would much prefer to drive a bad car than never drive at all. Fortunately his family has learned to put up with this obsession and the internet has provided a channel for his ramblings.

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