London - Mechanics trying to fix electric cars could end up killing themselves or their customers unless the government takes action to prevent unqualified cowboys from servicing the new vehicles, the motor industry has warned.
In the next few weeks, the UK’s Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) will launch a campaign to persuade Whitehall that new regulations are required to ensure mechanics are properly trained to work with electric motors.
Electric cars can contain circuits running at more than three times the 230 volts found in the mains supply, posing a real risk of electrocution and fire unless properly handled.
Steve Nash, the IMI's chief executive, said there was a pressing need to set up a licensing system for electric car mechanics to ensure they were properly trained.
“Sooner or later somebody is going to attempt to do something they shouldn't do and they are going to fry themselves. That will either be the person working on it who gets a 600- or 700-volt shock or it might be a member of the public exposed to a fire risk,” he said.
“It's that serious. It's not scaremongering. It's real.”
There are about 180 000 car mechanics working in the UK, of whom only 40 000 are on the IMI's professional register. The remaining 140 000 are likely to have been trained but could potentially include people who have decided they have a talent for fixing cars, despite lacking real knowledge.
There are about 45 000 electric cars on the roads and 1000 people trained to fix them.
However the IMI said it now expected the switch to electric cars to happen far more quickly than forecast. A recent survey found that half of 1000 people looking to buy a new car were considering an electric or hybrid model.
Mr Nash said that once electric cars started to take over from petrol vehicles - and the work for traditional car mechanics began to dwindle - “the temptation to have a go becomes greater”.
“We need people who are at least qualified to the level where they know how to make the car safe before even trying the routine things like working on the brakes,” he said. “There is the very real risk that someone might say, 'Well, I'll have a go.'
“They [electric motors] are potentially lethal if people don't know what they should do on them.”
There is graphic evidence that when electric cars go wrong, the results can be spectacular. Last month, a Tesla Model S was destroyed after bursting into flames at a charging station in Gjerstad, Norway. It is unclear why this happened, but the American manufacturer is investigating, and stresses that electric cars had a better safety record than petrol-fuelled models.
The IMI has been speaking to politicians about the problem, but has found that those in Westminster have little understanding of the need to ensure that mechanics are adequately trained.
“The unfortunate thing is the electric car looks pretty much like any other car from the outside, but it's very different under the bonnet,” Mr Nash said.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE
Alan Hicks, 48, a consumer quality controller at BMW's plant in Farnborough, has been working on cars since he left school in 1983 and on electric cars since 2009.
He said he “definitely without a doubt” backed the IMI's campaign for regulation.
“There's quite a big difference with electric vehicles. The primary concerns are safety because all of the vehicles run on 360 and 400 volts DC. If you touch that, you'll pretty much be dead instantly,” he said.
“With a conventional car, you're not very often opening yourself up to such serious things.”
However, for those with the proper training, Mr Hicks said the risks were in fact “negligible”.
“It doesn't concern me - as long as I know I'm following procedures,” he said.
And working on electric engines has other benefits for the mechanic. “It's a lot cleaner. I suppose as I get older I want to get dirty less, for sure,” said Mr Hicks.
But for him the main interest is being in at the beginning of a revolution in car making.
“There are a lot of people who are petrolheads who love the noise and things [of the old tech]. With electric cars it's just different. You get a buzz from working on these cars because the technology is new and it's just different,” he said.
A Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring the UK is a global leader in all aspects of ultra-low-emission vehicles and are supporting the automotive industry to develop the skilled workers it needs to deliver our ambitions.”
The Independent on Sunday