By on June 4, 2017

oil change, Image: Yonkers Honda

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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31 Comments on “If Robots Can Build Our Cars, Why Don’t They Service Them?...”

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The oil-and-tire bots will show up at dealerships first. That is the bottom rung for auto techs, in both experience and salary. Manufacturers can also design vehicles with the bots in mind and close off the ecosystem a bit more.

    • 0 avatar

      Oil bots will be nice. I do on occasion change my own oil, but one time while at a dealer, I asked the service advisor to also check something minor, and he told me I’d need to make another appointment as I didn’t want “those guys” doing anything more than to change the oil. I appreciated his honesty… :)

    • 0 avatar

      “Manufacturers can also design vehicles with the bots in mind and close off the ecosystem a bit more.”


      Limiting the complexity of the input space, is THE key to reaping gains fro automation. Hence why those who are more concerned about putting realistic, economically feasible self driving vehicles on the road, rather than simply selling hype to starry eyed suckers at both ends of the dream chain (investors and recruits); are focusing on automating the divided highway portion of truck drives, rather than much more unpredictable surface street driving.

  • avatar

    I wonder if low maintenance EVs will become widespread before these machines reach cost competitiveness, further reducing the need for them? That of course begs the question of whether the likes of Jiffy Lube, etc will have a place in that environment. High tech, skilled mechanics will always be able to find work, even servicing EVs, but the need for oil changes, etc. will slowly disappear as older cars leave the roads.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 when EV’s become the way their 18 engine parts aren’t going to need much servicing. Perhaps the robotic shot is best aimed at brakes & tires to begin with?

      • 0 avatar

        Probably would be better in the long run since the replacement tire and brake industry tends to be predicated on high volume and low pay. Two of the more important safety systems on a car and there is a considerable chance the individual working on your brakes and tires has no formal training at all and what they’ve been “taught” wasn’t really correct to begin with.

        Most people balk at some sort of independent mandated national certification program but its an industry that sorely needs that sort of oversight.

    • 0 avatar

      Outside of oil and transmission fluid changes, there will still be a need for tires, brakes, axles and suspension jobs.

      What the Jiffy Lubes lose in oil changes could be made up for with dubious “recommended” EV services. Just imagine: “We recommend our $49 Premium Battery Conditioning Service every 10,000 miles”

    • 0 avatar
      Guitar man

      Given that 95% of vehicle problems are electrical in origin, we can safely rule that out.

      New car dealer mechanics rarely do any work other than fluid changes on the drivetrain ; that’s why they’re so hopeless when anything goes wrong.

  • avatar

    Lets kill all the people. Long live robots. Skynet!

  • avatar

    Robot or not, I will still change my own oil.

    Changing oil is an easy task but it’s also a task that’s easy to get wrong. I’ve heard horror stories of underfilling, overfilling, leaving the drain plug or oil filter loose or out completely and the list goes on. I avoid oil change shops like the plague and the “free oil change” offers dealers like to throw around are useless to me. Too many 17-year-olds doing these jobs (who think they know everything) equals a whole lot of unnecessary risk.

    Transmission fluid? I’d like to do that myself, but I think that requires special procedures and equipment (I have the 62TE, which does not facilitate owner servicing). Trust me, though, I was pretty nervous about the whole process, but it’s a good and almost necessary thing to do around 50k. I was a bit more at ease because the transmission specialists are a bit more trained and specialized than oil and tire jockeys.

    I imagine robots wouldn’t​ be any better. There are too many nuances between makes and models.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 I also take the time to rotate my tires while changing my oil. No more lug nuts tightened to within an inch of breaking w/ an air wrench, rather than being properly installed via torque wrench. And it only takes me a leisurely 35-45 minutes to complete the task! :-)

  • avatar

    I’d be all for oil change robots so long as it retained my dipstick long enough for me to drive back to the oil change place to retrieve it. They’d still probably strip the threads on the drain plug though.


  • avatar

    Robots won’t be bought by the dealership, they’ll be sold on the Snap-On truck. As a technician, if you want the gravy jobs, you have to do the oil changes as well. That’s where they get all their upsells. A $10k oil change bot will be more useful than a 10mm impact swivel socket and locking extension on a 1/4″ drive air ratchet, but at a higher price.

    • 0 avatar

      I recently took a Honda Accord in to a national tire chain to have the front tires balanced. It took them over an hour, and the service guy handed me an estimate for nearly 800 bucks to replace the front struts, which according to him were “both totally blown out”.
      The upsell on overpriced, unnecessary service is a required part of doing any job, apparently.
      Of course, both struts are perfectly fine.

  • avatar

    I can’t see a robot being able to remove a rusted differential check plug on a old pickup truck.

    • 0 avatar

      Why not? Built in impact driver with easily adjusted torque settings that the robot can slowly ramp up until the plug is free or it hits a max torque value and throws an error.

  • avatar

    As a design engineer for a company that sells custom industrial automation equipment including integration of robots from Fanuc, Epson, ABB, and Denso (I’m probably forgetting a few), aftermarket automobile servicing isn’t even on the automation radar.

    Automation (with minimal human involvement at the periphery) works well with simple tasks that may need to be more precise than humans can easily manage while being both repetitive and rather quick. Drones/robots requiring human operation work well in dangerous/hazardous conditions requiring environmental resistance or strength humans cannot manage. Servicing automobiles of various makes/models/years/options combinations/age/aftermarket modifications does not come close to fitting into one of these two baskets. That is why we do not see “robotic oil changes” and probably won’t for 20+ years.

    • 0 avatar

      As someone in the field of robotics/automation as well, I agree in full. I can see the NEED for something to take on the low end tire swapping/oil changing tasks, but for even something simple like a brake job, I don’t think we’ll see a feasible automated solution any time soon. Just too many variables to make a cost-effective solution.

      Now, not in a robot-driving around-the-shop kind of way, but a oil extraction setup via the dipstick that a tech could plug in make and model and the machine would extract and fill up the exact amount of the exact grade, that would be a straightforward and potentially error-reducing and time saving setup. Oil filter would still be the tech’s job of course. No messing with the oil drain plug and all the stripping/over/undertightening worries.

  • avatar

    Because new cars don’t have rust.

  • avatar

    We are already seeing the tip of the iceberg – what is one of the first things a technician in 2017 does when servicing a car? Plug in.

    Some systems can only be serviced using the proprietary software. For example, bleeding the ABS module on a BMW. The at-home DIYer is up a creek if they get air in the system.

    As for more physically-involved maintenance, yeah, start with the more routine and repetitive tasks. Oil changes are already very straightforward.

    Why can’t every car have standardized quick-connect IN and OUT ports mounted in a somewhat standardized location? Hook up the machine, press go, old oil gets sucked out and new oil is pumped in. The tech only has to spin the oil filters off and on. Even that task could be replaced if the oil filter location was standardized as well.

    • 0 avatar

      I think I’ll just skip the whole thing by buying an EV.

      No, EVs aren’t maintenance free. But brakes and suspension bits require servicing much less frequently than an explosion engine.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Yep, that’s why I was thinking robotic servicing would have to be integrated into the design of the car. Slurp straw for the oil change and a top-mounted filter. No need to go underneath at all.

    • 0 avatar

      Does the gravel road method of ABS bleeding not work on modern BMWs?

      Genuinely asking, I’ve not done brakes on one.

  • avatar

    I worked at a Jiffy Lube for 8 years, through high school and college.

    Unless oil filter locations become standardized, I don’t know how a robot is going to change oil filters. Some of them are really buried and tough to access (old 4runners).

    • 0 avatar

      “Some of them are really buried and tough to access (old 4runners).”

      Haha so true. They got so many things right with that truck, me having to reach through the wheel well to get at the oil filter which is angled to dump oil all over the skid plate is not one of them.

      My recently sold ’96 ES300 was a nightmare too. Filter is on the front of the engine under the front exhaust manifold, and positioned over an engine mount bracket. Unscrew it and about 1/4 cup of oil ends up in the mount depression, and spends the next day or so oozing out from the crevice between the block and the bracket, right onto the hot exhaust pipe. This creates the impression that you have an oil leak, and all sorts of freaking out follows LOL.

      • 0 avatar

        On a 4Runner I’d consider a remote location for the oil filter. Tried that on my Ram1500 and loved the concept. However, the quality of the kit was very low and it leaked. So had to reverse to the original setup.

  • avatar

    My favorite phrase authors throw on the digital wall is “the cost should come down”. Applying Economics 101 to a service application tied to a modern robot is laughable at best.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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?..

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