Mechanic's Worry: Electric Car Brakes Will Ruin My Business

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Joe Ferrer, owner of BS&F Auto Parts in the Bronx, New York

Joe Ferrer, owner of BS&F Auto Parts in the Bronx, New York

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Talk to any independent auto-repair mechanic, and you'll learn that the single most important item that keeps a shop in business is brakes.

But hybrids and electric cars use their friction brakes far less aggressively than regular cars.

That's because when the driver presses the pedal, some or all of the slowing comes from engaging an electric motor that acts as a generator to turn the car's momentum into electricity that recharges the battery pack.

So what happens as hybrids and electrics grow more popular over the years and decades to come?

Enter Joe Ferrer, owner of BS&F Auto Parts in the Bronx, New York. He's the star of "Hard Parts: South Bronx," a show based on the day-to-day life of his busy store.

Ferrer says that brakes are easily 35 to 40 percent of his total business. Replacing rotors, calipers, and pads keeps his shop humming.

But on hybrids, brake jobs aren't needed every 15,000 miles as they are on conventional cars--more like 45,000 miles, he says.

"That will have a tremendous impact on my business," he worries. "It's an area where parts stores and shops make a lot of money."

And he worries that the complex power electronics and computerized control systems of electric and hybrid cars mean they'll only be serviceable by dealerships, not independent shops.

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

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"If we go all electric," he says, "it'll be a catastrophe for me."

Over the course of a long chat with Ferrer, he admitted that such a change wasn't likely to happen overnight.

And we noted that even the most optimistic analyses project that by 2020--eight years from now--hybrids and plug-in cars will only total perhaps 10 or 15 million vehicles, out of more than 1 billion vehicles on the planet.

In other words, there's a very long tail of older vehicles that will continue to need servicing. And because cars are better built and longer-lasting now, they may have a longer service life than those built in the Eighties, when Ferrer first got into the business.

It's true, however, that one selling point of battery-electric cars is how little service and repair they need.

Or as one owner crisply summarizes it, "Yep, wiper blades and tires, that's it."

BS&F Auto Parts, Bronx, New York

BS&F Auto Parts, Bronx, New York

Enlarge Photo

That doesn't apply to plug-in hybrids, though. While they too use regenerative braking, they still carry engines, which will need exhaust systems, accessory-drive belts, spark plugs, and so forth.

But over time, Ferrer probably does have a point: Continuing system integration, more electronics, and improved quality mean that independent shops may have less opportunity to do the run-of-the-mill repairs that have kept them in business for a century.

What do you think? Should Ferrer worry, or is it the next generation of auto mechanics who may not be able to open their own shops?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

And if you want more of Joe Ferrer, you can watch "Hard Parts" on Speed TV (Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern, 6 pm Pacific).


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Comments (42)
  1. 15,000 mile service interval for brakes? Seriously?

    I have a 2004 Toyota Corolla with 115,000 miles on the original brakes and clutch (stick shift). Of course, I don't drive like "some people" :).

    2006 Prius, 85,000 miles, original brakes, rotors look a little rusty.

    But to the larger point, 2004 Corolla has only needed Oil, 2 sets of tires, battery, and one oxygen sensor in 112,000. I suspect that is what will wreck his business.

  2. Manual transmission will save you brakes when used properly by using engine braking.

  3. Manual transmission will save your brakes at the expense of your engine. Leave the braking to the friction material and your engine will have compression longer. Brakes are cheaper to fix than engine rebuilds.

  4. All of Europe is taught to use the engine to sow down. And Engines last for 100 of thousands of km.

  5. DO NOT DOWNSHIFT when coming to a stop!
    Use ONLY your brakes. Better to wear brake pads than rev engine and create needless wear on the transmission and drive train.

  6. Yes, I definitely use the engine to slow me down. I have a ScanGage II in the car and it shows that I use no gasoline when I am decelerating. Modern cars actually cut fuel to the engine when decelerating and let the momentum of the car drive the engine through the transmission.

    As for Joe Foerster and Robert Gift, two questions. One, why would downshifting hurt the engine? What is the mechanism for damage (by the way, 115,000 miles and zero engine or transmission issues). Two, do you have any links to support the claim that the use of friction brakes is better?

  7. I disagree with Joe and Robert on that. I agree with John on his points. I use engine to "brake" as well during my manual car days.

    I think they believe the "engine braking" adds wear and tear to the engine b/c of the extra revs experienced by the engine and the stress experienced by the transmission gears and engine crankshaft and pistons. But those are much lower stress level than during combustion. Does it add "rev" wears? Yes. But do they make a difference with a properly maintained engine and transmission? I don't think so. I certainly haven't seen any data backing it up...

  8. I guess he'll just have to adapt, maybe he could get into custom wheels and other accessories.

  9. He could start stocking GID meters

  10. "But on hybrids, brake jobs aren't needed every 15,000 miles as they are on conventional cars--more like 45,000 miles, he says."

    15,000 miles is silly. Even with my "crazy" driving style as someone indicated, I change my brakes about every 80,000 miles. I do wear out tires every 30,000-36,000 miles.

    My last car with 167,000 miles had only oen set of brakes pads replaced (with rotors later at 132k miles), still on original clutch and 5 sets of tires...

    EVs and Hybrids will "tranform" traditional parts store, NOT eliminating them.

    EVs will have different problems with different parts. Sure, Electric motor have far less moving parts, but it still has cooling system. It still has cabin and various parts in the cabin.

  11. You are wrong. You are ascribing similar maintenance frequencies for EVs as is the case for ICE vehicles. There is no comparison. EVs, and very good hybrid vehicles like the Prius, have and will continue reduce the number and market share of these independent auto parts stores. There will be no great transformation of auto parts stores into parts stores for EVs. There is no no need for EV parts at parts stores for do it yourselfers as the lack of maintenance EV needed combined with the complexity/tools needed for such jobs will force almost all EV drivers to dealerships or EV only auto shops for their infrequent less costly then ICE maintenance.

    No cooling system to worry about, no lighting issues w/ the new LED lights. Rare problems

  12. Tesla, Volt and Focus EV all have cooling system. In fact, the Volt has two cooling system for the controller AND batteries. Not all EVs use LED headlight. My old ICE cars with 12 years in age and 167k miles NEVER had its lights replaced.

    Like I said, majority of the reduced parts/maintanence are ICE related parts. But rest of the vehicle parts are the same...

    Although many "do-it-yourself" home mechanics mostly work on parts related to the ICE, so that part of the business will suffer.

    Parts stores just have to replace their ICE parts with IGBTs, Power MOSFETs, Capacitors, Resistors and various upgrade/repair parts for EVs...

    Test and diagonastic tools will also be a part of their business...

  13. Eric, I work for a supplier which sells motors for cooling systems for hybrids, so you're clearly not correct on that point. Even many LED lights need a cooling system driven by a motor, so it's not even heavy-duty cooling requirements only, either.

    Yes, many maintenance issues are reduced via EVs, but to claim that there is "no cooling system to worry about" is just wrong. And independent repair shops will still exist, at least the ones that adapt to the new vehicles of the future.

  14. "Continuing system integration, more electronics, and improved quality mean that independent shops may have less opportunity to do the run-of-the-mill repairs that have kept them in business for a century."
    I disagree. I think auto mechanics just have to be re-trained to be highly skilled and their traning are no longer just "mechanical", they have to be proficient in electronics as well.
    Cars still need tires, brakes, suspension and various lighting that all need certain repair over time.
    But I do agree that single purpose shops such as Jiffy Lube who specialize in oil change will get impacted... But new "specialized" EV shops will pop up to replace those low skilled shops.

  15. Living in a suburb of Boston with a high percentage of Priuses, the local garage seems to be able to handle all the service work on them.

  16. I don't want to "irritate" Prius owners again, but I have said this over and over that Prius Synergy drive trains are NOT high tech. It is designed to be low tech and low cost to produce...

    See if any of your local shop are willing to work on the Leaf or Volt.

    My local Chevy dealer service tech couldn't even get the tire pressure right b/c it is different from the rest of the Chevy cars. (He assumed that it is the same as rest of the cars)...

  17. Boo bloody hoo. I like the fact that I won't be gouged on repair and maintenance, don't ask me to feel sorry for the people gouging me.

  18. The horse-traders said similar things about the horse-shoe business around the turn of the 20th century when horseless-carridges came about.

  19. Independent repair shops tend to rape customers on jobs like brake work. Not saying they shouldn't make a living, and all business have loss and profit leaders making a balance. But I'm not going to shed any tears over a shop that lives to do brakes. They have a very long lead time to get retrained for a different business and they better get started! :D

  20. I do my own brakes an I have even changed the brake rotors too. I had to spray the bolts with seafoam deep creep and I twisted off a a 1/2 to 3/8 inch reducer while doing it. I then heated the bracket that the bolt threads into with a propane torch and it came off rather easily after that. I can install pads for about $25.00 an axle or so and almost all shops quoteat least $140 just to replace brake pads. I haven't had my brakes fixed by a shop in over 5 years and in that time I replaced both front and rear pads with front rotors for mine and all new pads for my step daughters car and new pads for my wifes car. I fiquire I saved a least $700 by doing it myself.

  21. Disk brake pads are remarkably easy to replace.

    My real annoyance with the dealership is that they tried to scare my wife in to getting new brake pads (on a 2000 Sienna) saying the pads were less than 3/32". I pulled the pads and found they were like new. The dealership mechanics are either crooks or incompetent (neither is good).

    Anyway, finally replaced the pads at 60,000 miles because I was selling the car, however the pads still had a lot of life left.

  22. My wife paid $30 to replace a $3 bulb in a car while she was there getting it inspected. That is about $300/hour for that work.

  23. Dude,
    Most modern cars have increasingly complex networked computer systems in them, and are getting more complicated. Many of them devoted just to keeing your internal combustion engine running as "efficiently" as possible.
    You can't just blame that issue on hybrids and electrics. We are not in the 80s any more, we need to adapt - the same as many other industries have had to.

  24. Brakes is the least of it. The Tesla BEVs have one moving part: the motor rotor.

    It's a serious phase change in the biz. Extrapolation of the old ways isn't gonna work. Anyone who claims they know what the field, market, or economics will look like is blowing smoke.

  25. Advancement in our technology will enable a vehicle to go further using less energy & replacing movable parts will be a thing of the past. It's becoming increasingly important to monitor what the sensors are reporting back to the vehicles PCM than installing brake pads, performing a coolant flush & other 20th century antiquated technology.

  26. only thing i got out of this is how inefficiently America drives as a whole when repair shops survive and profit on our ability to jet from one stoplight to another slamming on the brakes.

  27. Yep, it can definitely be a problem with some drivers. Most commuters I see are more resigned to their fate and take it easy.

  28. My conclusion from this is bakes can become much lighter and less robust (less expensive?) to do the same job they have today, last just as long, and be just as effective if not more reliable.

    At some point brakes can be made light enough (cheap) to match the needs of EV's so that 35 to 40 thousand mile servicing is required again. If it is really that important for independent repair shops to have their hands constantly in our pockets, then engineer them to last for only 15 to 20 thousand EV miles.

  29. "If we go all electric," he says, "it'll be a catastrophe for me."

    Seriously, this is far-fetched. It will take 30-40 years to get 20-30% of vehicles on the road to be EV and Hybrids. Maybe his children and grand-children who may inherit his business may suffer but there is zero chance he has to fear business loss in his business lifetime. Looks like he has 20-years or so before retirement, he should be fine.

  30. You would think so but today's newer cars have much longer maintenance intervals, including brakes, so his business will likely halve in about ten years or so.

    Don't be surprised if there isn't another cash for clunkers program sometime later this decade when folks will turn in vehicles that average 15 or 20 mpg and obtain vehicles that will average 40 or 50mpg. That will get a lot more of those frequent maintenance interval older cars off the road...along w/ much higher gas prices.

  31. My 2004 F-150 has 95,000 miles on it, and it is still on the original brake pads. If people are getting pads changed at 15,000 then the repair shops are ripping them off.

  32. EXACTLY! Most ICE cars don't have their brake pads replaced as often as those parts shop indicated...

  33. Another thing to consider. EV reduced a lot of "moving parts" by switching from ICE to Electric motors. But it also added a lot of "high power" electronic components in the controller and various control/charging system. Those components aren't "trouble-free" forever.
    Tyically, in electronic industry, a 7ppm failure rate is industry average. For high power devices that rate is magnitudes higher depending on the stress level. Sure, proper thermal and derating design can allievate those problem or improve reliabilites, but it won't "elminate" those. Your typical home solar inverters (by Powerone) only warranty for 10 years for that simple reason. (Although Enphase will warranty 25 years). So, as the number of the EVs increase, you will see "ppm" related failures due to the number of electronic components used and number of cars out there.
    Of course, those % are still going to be far lower than ICE related moving parts...

  34. Excellent points!

  35. Yeah lets keep ruining the enviroment and sending our kids to die for oil so this guy can keep this fat cat rolling in cannoli's. Let me cry a river of tears for you.

  36. Driving in L in my Volt, I expect to change the brake pads at 180K, or the next owner will at least...


  37. That's amazing! Good for you!

  38. I have to say that L in the Volt is pretty awesome. Since I commute in my Volt, I know just about when and where to take my foot off the gas pedal on the exit ramp so I can slow down just enough to the exit light without using any brakes. Even on the hwy, the L mode will usually slow me down enough that I don't have to use brakes.

    I tried the "eco" mode in the Leaf. It didn't do max regen until you press down on the brake slightly. I hope the 2013 Leaf would get you a "real" regen mode without going into "Eco" mode.

  39. Do you remember One Hour photos? Record stores? Video rentals? How about book stores and pay phones, and smoking?

    Shall I go on? Thousands of products in hundreds of industries die when things change.

    Seriously John, did you talk to Joe about the word progress?

  40. You mean like the horseless carriage ruined the Blacksmith trade? Gee, so you mean we should just stagnate with current technology and not move because YOU have a business based on sun-setting technology? REALLY?

  41. Push for revoking the ban on third-party computer systems for cars. It was passed because of manufacturer lobbyists claiming that an after-market computer might have "safety issues". As Toyota has proven, there's nothing super-safe about the manufacturer original computer, the only purpose for protecting it is to allow them to build cars that can only be serviced at an authorized shop. And shops pay through the nose to be authorized. An open-source, open hardware control system for a modern car would be both less error-prone and cheaper and would eliminate his concern about not being able to service the cars.

  42. I remember hearing the same thing when the cassette tape, the CD, the VHS, the DVD etc... Some robots replace a lot of workers. But if it is for a better technology, then society benefits even though some may lose. The key is to know how to adapt with these sorts of issues. If not, then we would all have wood-burning stoves because loggers got angry at the microwave!

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