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Commentary: Ara Automotive Training Is Moving With The Times

"The car of tomorrow - a computer on wheels - will deliver mobility as a service, drive autonomously, operate in a fully connected and digitalized environment, and be powered by an electric drivetrain… resulting in a significant increase in the role of automotive electronics and the emergence of the software-driven car, dominated by electronics."

So states a 2020 report from the Roland Berger Centre for Advanced Technology. Even if evolution of ‘cars into computers’ is not as rapid or as total as predicted, it would seem that the automotive industry is undergoing significant changes as vehicles become ever more technologically advanced and connected to an always-on worldwide network. And this arc of digital innovation is reshaping the careers of automotive technicians around the world.

The traditional interest in finding solutions to problems and figuring out how things work mechanically, as well as a love for cars in general are still hugely important in the ‘automotive aftermarket industry’, but the skills and knowledge needed to do so in the modern context has changed a great deal. Today’s technicians need to be able to open a hood and make use of the contents of a standard tool box but increasingly they must also be able to understand complex on-board computer technologies, novel drive trains and electrical systems and the ability to understand the flow of information generated by state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment.

In years to come, automotive technicians may also have to have expertise in smart welding, aluminium body repair and even 3D printing of parts and panels.

Peter Sauer, Manager - Automotive and Auto Body at Ara Institute of Canterbury says "I think that Ara is well placed to help our students explore these challenges with our current training. We have inclusion of hybrid, electric vehicle and complex electronics in our automotive training to account for the growth in this field. I do know that electric vehicles are topical of late but to put it in context we have 4.2 million vehicles in NZ and less than 20K are electric vehicles. That said, we are seeing the demand in new vehicles and government legislation pointing towards a growing demand."

Currently, ‘automotive technician’ appears on Immigration New Zealand's skill shortage list. According to a 2020 report from the TechForce Foundation advocacy group, the demand for new vehicle technicians outpaced the supply of new graduates by nearly three to one in 2020. Almost 400,000 additional automotive technicians will be needed from 2020 to 2024 to meet current demands, the report says.

However, the auto technicians of the future may also have to take on an even more novel challenge; gaining the skills needed to repair the robots that will increasingly work alongside them. Robot technology has been used in vehicle manufacture for decades, and now they're increasingly moving into repair as well. Manufacturers such as Audi have recently begun trialing diagnostic and technician robotic systems at some of their dealerships, and it appears likely that some routine tasks, such as those associated with aspects of body repair, might become the territory of ‘body bots’.

In yet another shift for the industry, car manufacturers, using remote sensors and cloud-based diagnostic tools, may seek to keep their digital assets to themselves, and shoulder third-party repair businesses out of the loop. Tesla has already begun to school its own repair force, having recently launched ‘START’, an intensive training program where students develop advanced expertise with Tesla’s high-tech electrical vehicles. The manufacturer is partnering with colleges in the US to integrate its curricula with that of existing programmes.

It also may become the case that the whole concept of who does what to vehicles might be up for grabs. Quartz reported in 2020 that vehicle ownership might eventually be replaced by a communal service - flexible car time-sharing along the lines of the urban scooter pool-hire model.

Peter adds "All kinds of technicians, including automotive ones, are clearly very much needed here in NZ and across the world. Regardless of shifts in the skills that the automotive industry requires in the future, Ara is very well equipped to keep pace and to ensure that our graduates are ready to tackle the traditional tasks as well as the new challenges - and opportunities - that the ‘internet of things’ is bringing to life."

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