This article first appeared in Paint & Panel May/June 2020 and was written by Thatcham Research which produces the repair methods system escrbe.
It would be easy to assume that only fully electric vehicles, such as a Tesla or Nissan Leaf, present an increased risk to your business. In reality, any vehicle that contains High Voltage (HV) systems introduces risk. But what proportion of people who will come into contact with HVs really understand their threat?
From having the ability to return a damaged HV vehicle to the road fully reinstated to prior performance, to protecting staff from the increased risk of electrocution, there is plenty for bodyshops to consider. The electrification of the powertrain, introducing HV systems to the modern motor vehicle, is a seismic shift that must be taken seriously.
Training is one of the inevitable solutions to tackle these new difficulties, and it shouldn’t be restricted to the technicians who will work on HV systems. Without the correct knowledge, anyone coming into contact with an HV - from first responders to all staff in and around a workshop - faces increased risk.
Let’s take a look at each issue in turn.
1) A new nomenclature
The number of HVs on UK roads grew from 10,000 in 2010 to a current total of 200,000. In Australia the VFacts March data – which does not include Tesla – shows private electric and PHEV passenger sales have almost doubled with 91.3% more sales compared to March 2019, and hybrid private passenger vehicle sales are up nearly 75%.
All carmakers are moving towards a cleaner future: witness the rise in advertising of new, greener models (not least VW following its recent difficulties). By 2025, we can expect a typical bodyshop to repair an electric vehicle every day.
We’re lacking a standard means of identification (all of the following are HV): fuel cell and battery EVs; series, parallel, plug-in and mild hybrids. Everyone involved in recovery and repair faces greater risks if this classification issue isn’t addressed and people are consequently unaware of exactly what type of vehicle they are dealing with.
High voltage is generally referred to as an electric component or circuit, with a working voltage of >60-volts and ≤1500-volts DC or >30-volts and ≤1000-volts AC root mean square. Any vehicle that includes components or circuits that meet this definition should be clearly identifiable as HV; all necessary precautions for safe working practice should be instigated to protect all staff.
2) The shocking truth
The days of lifting a bonnet, reaching for a spanner and disconnecting the 12v battery to make the vehicle safe are rapidly disappearing. With traditional training, almost everyone in the repair ecosystem from first responder to bodyshop technician could identify and disconnect a 12v battery to make a vehicle safe to work on. With HVs, however, disconnecting the 12v system does not make the vehicle safe, so new and additional training is paramount.
For instance, not all electrified vehicles are fully electric, and some don’t even require plug-in charging, so the tell-tale sign of a charging socket may be missing.
When opening the bonnet of this BMW 330e vehicle, at first view, it isn’t obviously an HV. The signs are there but without training they are easy to miss. There is a typical combustion engine in view, so danger might not be obvious. Take a closer look, though, and HV is more apparent. Most recognisable for trained staff would be the orange cables, but these are tucked away at the back of the engine and the small warning label on the BMW 330e can be easily missed.
Whatever type of HV you’re handling, the safety aspect is significantly different. High voltage in automotive is generally referred to as above 60-volts, and currently a HV system can operate up to 650v, with increases set for the future. At Thatcham Research, we believe there isn’t enough awareness of the dangers. Factors such as accident damage, use of heat in repair and which capacitors are storing electrical energy increase risks to technicians.
While a 12v system is more likely to produce a dangerous shock, an HV system could electrocute that same person. Unprotected contact with an HV system can cause muscular contraction, deep tissue burning, interrupt heart rhythm and damage the central nervous system. It can lead to the person clenching the item that is electrocuting them.
Being aware an electrocution is happening can save the lives of other people beyond the unfortunate victim. Our first instinct is to help someone in harm’s way, but that will likely make things worse without the right training.
Thatcham Research is aiming to make identification of HV vehicles more transparent to the industry at large. We are raising awareness of the issues that we find in our research and supporting the industry to empower them to become HV safe. Training is by far the most effective solution to these quandaries.
Meanwhile, we are developing enhanced transparency of HVs by adding alerts for vehicle assessors within our escribe system.
3) Beyond the bodyshop team
As mentioned earlier, the increased risk extends beyond the technician who is actually working on the vehicle. This means everybody within a bodyshop, service centre, recovery business and emergency response team will be affected. All of them need to receive training in order to understand their exposure to the potential dangers that HVs bring.
This doesn’t mean non-technical staff at your organisation must become electrical engineers overnight or need to come to grips with the intricacies of repairing HVs. They should simply be aware of such vehicles being on the premises and understand how to behave in this new environment.
It’s important for all staff to realise that distraction could be deadly. An innocent mistake could lead to a catastrophic chain of events for the wider business. Conversation and mobile phone use should be considered because of their potential to distract.
Training can give all staff the right level of awareness but clear identification within the workplace is required to make a business HV safe. It is imperative to ensure bodyshops and service centres have the right procedures and signage in place to protect all staff. This includes having a designated area where an HV vehicle can be clearly identified. While Personal Protection Equipment is critical, this should be treated as the last defence against injury - not the first. All of these things can make the repair centre much safer.
4) Carmakers can’t afford not to train
Hundreds of millions of pounds are spent by carmakers on advertising their ranges every year. At Thatcham Research, we believe heavy investment should be committed to training that involves the bodyshop but also stretches beyond it.
HVs represent a relatively new, significant technological change that is gathering pace. As such, it isn’t reasonable to consider technicians’ existing training is enough to give them the necessary awareness and ability to deal with HV systems. It’s too important to just leave people to their own devices and expect them to build new competencies themselves, however skilled they are and however long they have been working in the industry.
Businesses should pause now for an internal review of their procedures and requirements relating to HVs. Without the proper training in place across the organisation, the whole business could be placed at risk by a single technician working on just one HV.
There’s also the question of who should train external teams that come into contact with HVs, such as first responders, vehicle recovery staff and independent repair shops. Although these employees fall outside a carmaker’s network, the industry and its partners would be much better prepared if manufacturers joined the push for mass education about HVs.
Thatcham Research believes that government should also be charged with highlighting the risks, not just the opportunities, that HVs bring.
The overall benefits of training
There’s little doubt that today’s technicians need to be diagnosis and hardware savvy as they progress to working in a precision engineering environment. I believe the revolution in automotive technology goes beyond that being witnessed in any other sector. This is bringing new risks but also expansive opportunities.
Thatcham Research is keen to encourage all automotive businesses, not least bodyshops, to promote their capabilities. A fully HV-enabled business can highlight these skills to work providers, carmakers and consumers to increase demand for their services. They can also differentiate themselves from the competition, attracting and retaining the best talent in what’s becoming a hugely exciting market for employees.
With investment being poured into the industry, it’s a great time for young people to consider a career in automotive services. This includes the organisations charged with making HVs safe. We should all be encouraging government and our education system to promote the employment opportunities on offer.
All in all, it’s clear training and education can give automotive businesses the power they need to ensure the high voltage-driven future of automotive is as safe as their colleagues, and motorists, will surely demand.