Miriam Dalli, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development, recently announced Malta’s investment in a second interconnector cable linking Malta to Ragusa, Sicily.

The expected rise in demand for electricity services, partly fuelled by the increased use of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, is probably the main justification for such a massive investment.

Planning ahead for EVs and PHEVs is one key message that the Malta Insurance Association has been highlighting with the local authorities for months. While the government’s bold and forward-looking statements are commendable, one cannot underestimate the challenges of reaching an objective of EVs outnumbering internal combustion engine vehicles (ICE vehicles).

Apart from the infrastructural improvements, which would include a significant increase in charging stations or pillars and fast-charging stations, there are other considerations which are probably being taken for granted or perhaps overlooked.

Of particular interest to insurers are the challenges that need to be met by vehicle repairers which have traditionally been trained and remain focused on the repair of ICE vehicles.

The demand for and use of EVs are rising slowly but surely and, with the harmful effects that pollution causes as well as the attractive grants being offered on purchase, we can only expect more EVs on our roads, especially as their prices start to adjust in response to the increase in demand.

Electric power can take various forms. Without being too technical, it may complement the power from its (fossil-fuel) engine (referred to as hybrids) or else exclusively drive the vehicle through an electrical source, which is a battery. While efficient in its own way, the battery, which is, in practice, a much larger version of the mobile phone battery, needs to be handled with utmost care and attention, apart from disposed of appropriately when it runs out.

The high voltage that feeds into the EV’s power train means that it needs to be handled in a different manner when compared to an ICE vehicle in various situations, such as after a crash or when about to be repaired.

There are a few considerations that need to be made.

Mechanics who are qualified or experienced in repairing ICE engines will need to be retrained to handle EV repairs.

Repair facilities, both for mechanical and for body work, will require a complete overhaul as EVs and ICE vehicles cannot be placed right next to each other. EVs need ample repair space because of the excessively high temperatures reached in case of a fire, thus incurring additional risks if combustible materials are close by.

Apart from space, the vehicles should also be cordoned off with appropriate ‘high-voltage area’ warning signage.

One cannot underestimate the challenges in reaching an objective of EVs outnumbering internal combustion engine vehicles- Adrian Galea

The pandemic has introduced us to the importance of personal protective equipment or PPE and repairers need to wear the right PPE including highly insulated gloves and boots when handling EV repairs.

Depending on the nature of the repair job at hand, specific tools would be required when handling EVs.

Before undertaking the most routine of jobs, the vehicle needs to be made safe by disconnecting its high voltage supply and allowing some time for the energy to dissipate before starting a repair job. In some cases, specialist equipment is needed to keep the battery on low power as, otherwise, it can be damaged. Sprayers must be aware of the processes to be used for each EV before curing the painted vehicle in an oven as this, too, can, in some cases, cause safety issues.

These are just a few considerations which highlight the importance of having competent people tackling what could have been a straightforward crash repair job with an ICE vehicle.

The use of EVs will bring about a completely different mindset, not only for the end-user but also for service providers along the supply chain. A time will come when the lack of competent and trained staff, or technicians, will make or break the feasibility of a repair facility.

End users will also want to reassure themselves, as they do today, that the repair job is up to the manufacturers’ standards. Independent repairers would, therefore, need to bring themselves up to scratch with the repair processes and methods that differentiate EVs from ICE vehicles. If they do not, we risk facing a situation where the number of repairers will be insufficient to meet the demand for repairs, with all the undesirable consequences that this will bring about.

The Malta Insurance Association, as a representative of insurance companies that, through policyholders’ premiums, foot the bill for thousands of vehicle repairs that take place annually, calls upon the authorities to take this part of the planning process seriously. By this, we mean that the necessary awareness campaigns should be launched without further ado to educate the public about this different mindset. 

Furthermore, resources should be allocated to support the repair industry, including the availability of training facilities where these new skills can be acquired so that repairers can take on this challenge successfully.  

The MIA also recommends that systems be put in place to ensure that repairers continue to update themselves on the evolution in technologies. Learning the necessary skills at the outset is not good enough in the face of the rapid changes we are seeing in the construction of motor vehicles.

The authorities must invest in people who are able to provide the necessary expertise and raise awareness not only among the public but also among all the stakeholders who need to be equipped with knowledge and information about electric vehicles.

In an industry that is already facing a serious shortage of specialist skills, the authorities would do well to obtain such expertise from reputable sources. The recently launched Foundation for Transport and MCAST are two obvious candidates best positioned to cater for this particular challenge.

The emergence of this new EV reality also raises other considerations that require careful thought and planning.

The role that emergency services play cannot be underestimated as they are the first port of call in the case of vehicle accidents. Providing clear information to them is crucial to prepare them for a call-out and for their own personal safety.

In addition, they too need to be trained and equipped with information regarding the specifications of an EV that has been involved in an accident, especially where the extraction of injured occupants is concerned.

Electric vehicles could be the way forward in the future. The time is ripe to put our house in order and prepare ourselves to meet this challenge.

Adrian Galea, director general, Malta Insurance Association

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