If Robots Can Build Our Cars, Why Don't They Service Them?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
if robots can build our cars why don t they service them

Robots may be able to assemble your car, but they aren’t going to be servicing it anytime soon. Automation has made many industrial occupations irrelevant over the last few decades. Machines have even begun entering the fast-food industry and proven themselves adept line cooks. So then why aren’t they changing your oil?

The technology is available but implementing it is too damned expensive and slow. No machine yet qualifies as a “full-service” device, so centers would have to purchase multiple rigs and keep someone on staff to operate them — not exactly cost-effective. However, as those machines come down in price and gain in number, we’ll begin seeing them put into use more and more. Eventually, you’ll be returning to the servicing department to complain about a robot ruining your car instead of an inexperienced mechanic. But when?

According to a recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute, roughly half of today’s labor-intensive jobs would be occupied by machines by mid-century. Although, that could come a decade sooner or later — depending upon economic conditions, how quickly the necessary technology is ready, and how fast businesses adopt it.

“The timing might not be as near term as some people might imagine,” Mehdi Miremadi, co-author of the report, explained to Automotive News.

Miremadi examined the servicing tasks dealerships are responsible for and found that between 30 and 50 percent of the work currently being performed by flesh could be done by steel in the future. “Technology has to be cost competitive with human labor, and right now technology in its current form is simply too cost prohibitive,” he said. “Also remember the economy has to make room for the new jobs and skill sets that will be necessary to operate and program these machines.”

Hunter Engineering has developed several automated systems for service centers, including an automatic tire mounting machine that costs in excess of $30,000.

“Eight, ten years ago, when we were designing the Revolution machine, we were looking at a tech having to use a pry bar to physically remove the tire,” explained Kaleb Silver, senior product manager at Hunter. “The technician did a lot of the work there and made a lot of the movements. The machine reduced the risk involved in changing that tire.”

At present, most automated tire mounting devices cost more than many of the cars they would be servicing and still require some level of human involvement to function properly. They also aren’t any faster than someone who really knows what they’re doing with a set of hand tools — making them less desirable in certain instances. Hunter says the machines they decide to produce depends largely on what kind of return on investment a business purchasing them could expect.

“An oil-change robot would have been twice as valuable 10 years ago as it is today, because 10 years ago you changed oil twice as often,” Silver said.

In Asia, partially automated oil change stations are cropping up in parking lots. Roughly the size and shape of vending machines, the devices allow scooter-owners to vacuum out dirty oil and replace it in one easy step. It doesn’t replace the filter but provides a physical example of where things are heading.

Collaborative work between humans and machines will likely remain the norm for some time. We already see this on the assembly line. Robotics are wonderful at repetitive tasks but need someone to provide oversight and fill in where you can standardize the experience.

“Jobs that are dirty, dull or dangerous; in the industrial realm, that’s where we sell robots,” says Claude Dinsmoor, general manager for general industries and automotive segment at industrial robot manufacturer Fanuc Robotics America. “And when we look at a service bay, it’s not much different than a general assembly area of [an auto assembly plant], although it may not be as clean. But I’m seeing a lot of the same tools.”

Dinsmoor says he anticipates task-specific robots that would work alongside technicians rather than replace them.

“You still have to have the people around. That’s going to be the key driver in the service area,” Dinsmoor said. “If you put the robot in front of the car or the wheel, it can find the tire and the lug nuts easy enough. Fluid fill becomes an opportunity [for automation]. Those tasks don’t take much time for a person, but if you could automate those tasks, that frees up time for the person to do higher-level work.

“I think they’re going to look different, and they’re going to be built with a purpose in mind. It’s not going to look like C-3PO. It’s going to look more like R2-D2 — something that’s purpose-driven,” Dinsmoor says. “After 35 years in the robotics industry, we learn every day how sophisticated people really are.”

[Image: Yonkers Honda/ Flickr ( CC BY-SA 2.0)]

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  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Jun 05, 2017

    Yep, vehicles would need mods to facilitate 'robotic' servicing. I don't see that happening soon as the cost per vehicle would give the manufacturer's accounting dept (both human and computer) a heart attack. We have had automated car washes for some time. Not that complicated to add in oil change, but as others have noted, vehicles would need to be standardized/modified. Probbly not going to happen due to cost. With the way the system works there will be plenty of people that will strip your drain plug for $11 per hour. There are plenty of other areas for 'robots' to take over. See Amazon's proposal for multi-copters (they are not "drones") delivering your package.

  • Acubra Acubra on Jun 06, 2017

    Another example of lazy journalism on a supposedly "car"-centric blog. No-one who ever turned a wrench and tried to diagnose a problem will buy into these wet dreams of self-proclaimed "analysts". Who in their 20-something years of ignorant existence barely learned the skill of wiping there own arrears. Same applies to never-ending topics about electric/autonomous 18-wheelers, ships, brick-laying, etc. Where's the down-vote button?..

  • SPPPP Aggression is pretty much the reason that racing exists, so I am going to call this an unsolvable problem. It's a contrived scenario in which you take risks to get rewards. You may be able to improve it ... but never eliminate it.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is now our fourth 20th Anniversary GTI, and the third of those four that had major structural modifications for purely aesthetic reasons. I didn't picture Tim as the type to want to join the STANCE YO crowd, but here we are?
  • JMII This is why I don't watch NASCAR, it just a crash fest. Normally due the nature of open-wheel cars you don't see such risky behavior during Indy car events. You can't trade paint and bump draft with an Indy car. I thought it was a sad ending for a 500. While everyone wants a green flag finish at some point (3 laps? 5 laps?) red flagging it is just tempting people too much like a reset button in a game.The overall problem is the 500 is not a "normal" race. Many one-off competitors enter it and for almost every driver they are willing to throw away the entire season championship just to win the "500". It sure pays way more then winning the championship. This would be like making a regular season NFL game worth more then the Super Bowl. This encourages risky behavior.I am not sure what the fix is, but Indy's restart procedures have been a mess for years. If I was in charge the rule would be pit speed limiter until the green flag drops at a certain place on the track - like NASCARs restart "zone". Currently the leader can pace the field however they wish and accelerate whenever they choose. This leads to multiple false and jumped starts with no penalty for the behavior. Officals rarely wave off such restarts, but that did happened once on Sunday so they tried to make driver behave. The situation almost didn't happen as there were two strategies in the end with some conserving fuel and running old tires, driving slower with others racing ahead. However the last caution put everyone on even terms so nobody had advantage. It always gets crazy in the last few laps but bunching up the field with a yellow or red flag is just asking for trouble.
  • Tim Healey Lol it's simply that VWVortex is fertile ground for interesting used cars!
  • Jalop1991 I say, install gun racks.Let the games begin!