Ready or not, there are auto service shops across the country that are seeing new service opportunities in the form of battery-electric or hybrid vehicles roll into their parking lots. But, taking the step into electrified vehicle service isn’t always as simple as offering a welcome wave into an open bay.
There is lots to learn about electrification, and for many shop owners and their technicians, the flood of unknowns can make taking on an EV project too intimidating to begin. Recognizing this, NAPA has released its “NexDrive Powered by NAPA” training program in the U.S. to teach its shops and service centers what they need to know to be ready for the next generation of vehicles hitting our roadways.
To learn more about what to expect from the program, the biggest hurdle for getting into EV service, and distinct EV parts technicians need to be ready for, we sat down with Jamie Walton EVP, chief merchandising officer, NAPA, and Jake Sorensen, NAPA shop manager and diagnostic technician.
David Sickels, editor, The Buzz: Let’s jump right into NAPA’s NexDrive program. Can you tell me a little bit about what this program is and how you got the idea for this program?
Jamie Walton EVP, chief merchandising officer, NAPA: I’ll start and then I’ll hand it over to Jake because Jake is, as we speak, in the middle of the program, so it’s very fresh for him.
NexDrive Powered by NAPA actually started in 2020 in Europe and we had the opportunity to go and visit and see what they were doing. My Canadian colleagues actually got a headstart on us, as late last year they actually released NexDrive Powered by Napa in the Canadian market. They’ve got some particular areas where they have a high EV car parc or will have in the future, so they’re really focused in on those areas.
That’s how we came about NexDrive as a concept, and upon assessing it we saw really four key pillars of NexDrive. One is about awareness and helping our workshops to understand the new technologies coming. That’s one of the advantages we see here at NAPA; we can lean on our global counterparts and understand those trends before they get to the U.S., and that, of course, means even before they get to the aftermarket.
Training we see arguably as the biggest pillar, and that’s the piece that Jake’s working on as we speak. We need to train our technicians to work on these vehicles. And, we feel really good about this. However, we can’t simply take the training programs we had in Europe or that we’ve created for Canada and copy-paste here to the U.S. There are different regulations, there are some nuances, and that’s exactly what we’re working through. We need to make sure we’ve got the products to sell to service these vehicles for now and into the future.
And, then, we bundled the last pillar into partnerships and store training. So, we have a lot of global partners on our supplier side that are already supplying these parts to the OE, and we need to partner with them to bring them to the aftermarket.
In addition to that, we then need to train our store sales team on these new products and make sure that they’re doing the right job by Jake and his counterparts in the tens of thousands of workshops out there to make sure they’ve got the parts they need and know how to actually install them.
Jake, how is training going? Are you familiar with some of these concepts or is everything kind of brand new to you?
Jake Sorensen, NAPA shop manager and diagnostic technician: Yeah, I’m pretty familiar. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend quite a bit of training on the hybrid and electric vehicle market and we’ve been working on them in our shop. I’m just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. We have two locations, one with 16 service bays and the other with five service bays currently.
But, as with any training, there’s always something new. You learn a different perspective or different way of doing things. And, what I’m pretty excited about with NexDrive Powered by NAPA is that we can take technicians who maybe weren’t comfortable before working on these cars or had a fear of the safety issues and bring it to more shops.
I think there are a lot of independent shops that are a little intimidated to work on these vehicles and that’s why I’m excited that one of those pillars that Jamie mentioned is the training aspect. I think it’s so much more important on these types of vehicles than it was on our traditional combustion engine vehicles, and so I’m pretty excited to see that NAPA has a push behind it.
You mentioned this program started in Europe. What are some of the main things that you had to maybe tweak or change about the program that just wouldn’t work here in the U.S.?
JW: The good news is we have been able to use the majority. The nuance is in training and more around regulation, as each country may have its own unique requirements. We’re having to identify those and make sure the training is adapted accordingly.
We also had some challenges around language. In some of the countries, clearly, the training was just written in a different language so we’ve had to convert that. And, in fact, we’re about to also roll out the same program in my old market in Asia Pacific, as well.
Do you believe that this training is going to be useful for shop owners as well, who maybe don’t know how to get into EV services? Or, is this more strictly for the technicians actually getting into the nitty-gritty and doing specific tasks?
JS: There is actually a shop owner here in the training that I’m in, and I think that it does tie in well to that because what we’ve found is that for a lot of the customers driving these types of vehicles, they want to know that the service center they’re going to is knowledgeable on the product and understands what it is that they’re working on. So, there is kind of a marketing piece to this as well, not just technical training. There’s the ability to speak to the customer and know the nomenclature. So, I think there is a big benefit to shop owners or service managers, whoever that might be, getting some of this training and becoming more familiar.
JW: Yeah, it’s a really good point that our focus is actually on awareness of the workshops rather than consumers. Consumers will come in time, but we first need to create the awareness with our tens of thousands of workshops that, “Hey, you need to have the tools, the equipment, the training ready.” And to Jake’s point, clearly, that’s workshop owners as well. And then our focus will shift to consumers and car owners just to say, “Hey, these sites now have all the tools and training to work on your vehicle.”
Is this training designed for a technician of any skill level? Would it be appropriate for somebody right out of school?
JS: At the moment, the training has four stages and they’re working on the fifth stage, and it starts off fairly entry-level with electrical basics and safety and then it progresses more into some repair procedures and diagnostics and it gets a lot more heavily involved.
I’m not sure I would say somebody straight out of tech school or at the very entry level would be appropriate, but with a little bit of foundational knowledge or experience, they would be OK. The great part is that NAPA has an apprenticeship program as well that does take technicians or people with little to no experience to become a journeyman technician. I would say somebody at the end of that program would fit well moving into the NexDrive Powered by NAPA program.
What sorts of questions are you getting from the technicians during this training? Is it a lot of kind of base level, “I’m not familiar with this kind of maintenance and service,” or is it really getting into more nitty-gritty questions?
JS: There’s a combination of both. I think most technicians want to know how something works, whether they really need to or not, to work on that system. They want to understand exactly what’s taking place, which will be a benefit later on when we get into deeper diagnostics on these vehicles. Most of these vehicles haven’t been on the road long enough that we’ve really seen big problems with them. It has been mostly maintenance and light repair, but as they age, as that fleet gets older out there, we’ll need that information. And, so a lot of the technicians just want to know, “How does it work?”
If a shop maybe doesn’t have some of the EV-specific equipment like an EV lift or battery lift, can they still engage in the training?
JS: Yeah, definitely. That is a big part of the training, explaining to technicians and shop owners who are looking at diving into this market what equipment is needed, what equipment would be nice to have but not maybe necessary, and what they need to supply for their technicians.
What would you say is the biggest hurdle right now for shops that want to get into EV service? Is it a lack of training? Or, is it just a lack of information? Something else?
JS: Yeah, I think it’s purely that there’s a fear from not knowing. So many shop owners and technicians just don’t know how these vehicles operate or how they’re powered. There are a lot of scare tactics out there that if you do something wrong, you’re going to hurt yourself. And, while that definitely is a possibility, there is a lot of safety built into these vehicles. And, with proper training, you realize that they’re very safe to work on, that there shouldn’t be that fear. But, I think a lot of shop owners and technicians just don’t know that. They need that introduction to show them how these vehicles work so that they can be more confident.
JW: I would also add to that, David – there is clearly a desire from our workshop owners and our technicians to learn this. That’s what we love, and Jake’s a great example of that, being in the middle of the training now. Technicians want this information, and arguably, they’re wanting it ahead of these vehicles coming into their workshops. They’re starting to see them, but it is still only a very, very small part of the business today.
So, what I’m encouraged by is that our AutoCare centers are saying to NAPA, “Hey, can you get me ready for this?” I’m seeing the vehicles on the road, I may be starting to see some early customers, but I’m excited that the technicians are actually asking for this help ahead of it coming into their shops, which is encouraging.
In your experience, are just large shops asking for this training, or do you see many small, maybe two-bay shops asking for this kind of training too?
JW: I don’t think we have any factual data to say, but I certainly know that across our AutoCare Center network of some 18,000 sites – which has a really good mix of small and large shops – the demand’s consistent.
I think the good news is the NAPA training program has been in place for many, many decades and we’ve offered even through last year some training which I know Jake himself has done in this area. The NexDrive Powered by NAPA is just taking that to really what we believe will be market-leading and really position the technicians. Whilst there’s some basic training there today, we want to see and we believe NAPA through this program can be the market leader.
Why is it important on the parts and distribution side to be an EV knowledge resource for your shops and customers?
JS: I can speak to that from personal experience. When we first dove into the hybrid and EV market, one of our primary challenges was finding the components or parts. Really, your only option was the OEM or the dealership. They don’t always stock the parts in-house. They could be so expensive that it didn’t make sense to repair some of these vehicles. So, having NAPA open to broaden that offering and offer more parts for us has been great to allow us to service these vehicles for our customers.
JW: I think that’s somewhat unique about NAPA’s value proposition and our partnership with the AutoCare Centers – for us it isn’t just about selling parts. Most of NAPA’s stores themselves are independently owned and all of the 18,000 AutoCare Centers are independently owned. Our role is to make sure we support them for these changes, whether that be product training or anything else that they need. In doing so, we see that they buy more product from us and ultimately, if they’re successful, we’re successful.
From a parts perspective, everybody knows an EV has this giant battery, but beyond that I feel like people don’t really know what else there is. So, what are some of these parts that they might be running into?
JS: I think there’s a big misconception out there among consumers that these vehicles have no parts, no repair or maintenance needed, or drastically less. And, while that’s true in certain areas of the vehicle, overall, they’re still a machine. They still have all the same suspension parts that any other vehicle has. They’ve got braking systems that have to be maintained, repaired and serviced. But, also, these hybrid and electric vehicles have a lot more cooling system components. They have more rubber hoses with plastic fittings that crack, break, get old and brittle. So there’s a lot to service repair. There are a lot of parts that are needed, some being the same as we saw on traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, and some being a whole new market. But there’s plenty that we need as shop owners or technicians working on these cars need to be able to get, and NAPA opening up that opportunity for us has been great.
JW: We see the same thing the technicians are seeing. In most cases, it’s similar types of products, arguably with an element of some form of technology.
So, the cooling system’s a great example. It’s no longer just a coolant engine hose. It has an integrated sensor into that plastic molding so they’re constantly recording the temperature of the coolant to make sure the battery is at the right temperature. That means it’s a higher-value service or repair. We are actually really encouraged by the future technology that is coming into the vehicles and the opportunities that brings for workshops.
At NAPA, we have great supplier partners that really are the ones, in fact, leading behind the scenes of this market, whether it’s Gates working on the cooling systems or Bosch, Schaeffler, ZF. These are all global brands supporting OEMs. For us here at NAPA, whether it be in the U.S. market or whether it be globally, more often than not we’re their largest aftermarket customer. So, we are really confident. We’ve got great partnerships in place globally that are going to allow us to bring these products to Jake and his counterparts to make sure they’ve got the products to work on these vehicles when they’re required.