Photos by Ian Willms

This story is part of our “Green* Economy” issue, a collaboration between The Local and The Narwhal.

Shahwali Wali is convinced that in a decade’s time, he and his neighbours will have disappeared from The Junction.

Since 1995, Wali has owned Dupont Auto Repair on the corner of Dundas and Dupont Streets in west Toronto, at the heart of a cluster of independent auto shops scattered within a kilometre of one another. Many of these shops are run by first-generation immigrants: Wali moved to Canada from Afghanistan in 1984, first working at restaurants and in construction before buying his own garage. When I first visited Dupont Auto Repair on a bright April afternoon, Wali was attending to paperwork behind a wide, cluttered desk in the shop’s office. The air was warm, faintly smelling of metal, gasoline, and old paper. From the adjoining garage, the ambient din of mechanical work broke occasionally when staff members dressed in grease-stained coveralls poked their head into the office with a question or an update.

There was a time when Wali’s shop largely serviced taxis in need of repairs—he jointly ran a fleet of taxis and still does today, though in fewer numbers. Orange-and-turquoise Beck taxis were parked in various states of repair, their engine guts splayed open across his front lot. But as taxis became less ubiquitous and less profitable, he’s had to diversify his clientele. Having been in this industry for nearly three decades, Wali can recognize a threat to business when he sees it. And the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) could spell trouble.

It’s not because traditional mechanics, familiar with the ins and outs of combustion engines, don’t know how to fix them, Wali says.

“Right now, with these electric cars, the dealers have the equipment, they have the parts. They want to get the business and also fix the cars,” he explains. In his experience, and that of other mechanics The Local and The Narwhal visited, EV dealers and manufacturers are charging independent mechanics more and taking longer to supply parts than they do with gas vehicles. This incentivizes customers to go straight to the dealer when they need repairs.

“They’re taking business away from small brokers, because the parts are not available, and we don’t have the equipment [we need],” he says. “Anything they charge you, you have no choice.”

Many independent mechanics like Wali, who have weathered the ever-evolving automotive landscape—including innovations in technology and software, and increasing automation—are eager to service EVs, as are colleges and universities, which are increasingly making the study of EVs a mandatory part of their automotive curriculum. With the federal government’s highly ambitious deadlines for a national transition to zero-emissions vehicles, the automotive service industry must embrace electrification or perish.

But in both the regulatory and commercial arena, EV manufacturers and independent aftermarket (that is, repair and resale) businesses are wrestling over the “right to repair” principle—the right of consumers and independent shops to affordably access the tools or information needed to fix and prolong the life of an object after it’s purchased. In a sector of the automotive industry that is still relatively young and underregulated, mechanics fear being shut out by manufacturers and dealerships that see a lucrative opportunity to establish virtually exclusive access to EV repairs. If manufacturers win the fight over government regulation of the industry, it’ll be consumers and smaller businesses paying the price. Whether these mom-and-pop garages find ways to adapt, or stick to servicing combustion engines exclusively, or decide it’s not worth the cost and effort to stay in this difficult business, the outcome will reshape the automotive landscape of the city, affecting both their clients and the workforce holding up these independent shops.

Shahwali Wali has owned Dupont Auto Repair on the corner of Dundas and Dupont Streets in Toronto since 1995. With the transition to EVs, the future of his shop is as uncertain as it has ever been.

When Wali first bought the site that became Dupont Auto Repair in 1995, it was a propane and gas station, where his customers and fleet of taxis filled up on cheap propane at the height of its popularity as a fuel source. But when propane fell out of favour, Wali and his brother shuttered the gas station portion of the shop to focus on auto repairs and taxis. Then, Uber came along and overnight, taxis plummeted in value. EVs present a more gradual change to the market: uptake by Canadians is slow, and the rate of EV manufacturing within the country is lower than the global average, outpaced by both major manufacturers like China and smaller countries like Slovakia.

But late last year, the federal government passed the Canadian Electric Vehicle Availability Standard, a set of new regulations that, among other things, decree that 100 percent of the new cars sold in Canada by 2035 should be zero-emission vehicles. The goal aligns with targets in the U.K., European Union and 17 U.S. states.

Such a colossal transition is unlikely to happen, though, unless several factors align. First, the rate of Canadian EV manufacturing needs to rise, as does consumer interest in EVs, buoyed by federal and provincial purchase incentives. Last year, zero-emission vehicle purchases accounted for a record high of 10 percent of all car buys nationwide. But sales threaten to plateau since the market has already captured most Canadian car buyers who have the means and the climate-driven motivation to go electric. EVs are expensive: a city report in 2022 noted that EV uptake has been mostly in high-income midtown Toronto communities like the York Mills-Don Valley area, and wealthy parts of Etobicoke. And despite touting EV manufacturing as the shining future of Ontario, Ontario Premier Doug Ford scrapped the province’s $14,000 per vehicle rebate when elected in 2018.

Second, the infrastructure to charge EVs needs to be more widely available, especially outside wealthy enclaves in major cities. Toronto currently has 1,700 public EV chargers available, and aims to have more than 10,000 in total by 2030. But investments by the federal government are lagging.

Finally, an often-ignored piece of the puzzle: EVs need to be easier and more affordable to repair. Once an EV has left the dealership, that’s the biggest question on the owner’s mind—how to keep it running, and avoid costly repairs. Engineers predict that in the coming years, improvements to EV technology could increase longevity significantly, but that lifespan is only made possible by good maintenance. It’s not common for EVs to break down just a few years after coming off the assembly line, but it’s also not impossible. Batteries are the biggest challenge; they are currently immensely difficult to repair or recycle. Occasionally, you’ll see a horror story in the media: a Mississauga man who waited a year for a battery replacement on his Nissan Leaf, all the while shelling out for gas in his courtesy rental car; a Vancouver man whose Hyundai Ioniq 5’s battery casing was scratched, voiding the warranty and leading to a $60,000 quote to replace the battery, $10,000 more than the purchase price of the car. Across the U.S. and U.K., as well, insurers are increasingly writing off EVs for damage to batteries that are essentially deemed irreplaceable, regardless of the condition of the rest of the car. One U.K. insurance provider, John Lewis Financial Services, has ceased insuring EVs because of the costs involved.

The transition to zero-emissions vehicles has been marketed as one of the key solutions to the climate crisis, but this will only hold true if the means by which EVs are manufactured and maintained are sustainable in the long term. EV batteries are more emissions-intensive to produce than combustion engines because of the effort involved in mining rare earth minerals for the batteries (to say nothing of the health and human rights concerns associated with prolonged exposure to mining materials like cobalt and manganese, or how Canada’s critical minerals rush could clash with Indigenous rights). Depending on the means by which you get your electricity—from hydro or fossil fuel sources like coal—it could take anywhere from six months to five years, respectively, to ‘break even’ on the greenhouse gas toll of your EV, according to Reuters. Without affordable and accessible means to repair malfunctioning, damaged, or aging EVs, the manufacturing emissions are hard to justify. How far back does it set our climate goals to write off fixable cars as unrecyclable scrap?

The industry is split between those who buy the manufacturer rationales for restricting access to parts and data, and those who don’t. James Chow owns Car House Auto Centre, a sleek, renovated auto shop on an industrial roadway off Yonge Street in Richmond Hill. The area is a hub for mechanics—I counted a dozen in a 100-metre radius. Chow is the second generation in his family to work in the industry. His parents, who immigrated from Hong Kong, opened an auto shop in Markham in 1996, after his father spent years as a Canadian Tire technician. With little business acumen and significant barriers—his mother only spoke Cantonese—they built up a clientele by word of mouth.

Today, hip hop booms through the garage in Chow’s shop, where cars are packed into the work space, one raised five feet off the ground to reveal its underside. When I first spoke with Chow, he’d just returned from an annual auto conference in Nashville, buzzing about the right to repair movement unfolding in the U.S. Right now, EVs make up about one in every 10 repairs in his shop. Most of Chow’s clients are repeat customers. This is intentional: he accepts new customers based on whether they’re likely to become long-term clients.

And he knows how to spot an EV that’s more trouble than it’s worth. Since his shop is unaffiliated with Tesla, Chow explains, access to parts and diagnostic data is limited. EV manufacturers often cite data privacy concerns as a reason not to share important vehicle data with third parties, including mechanics who need it to run diagnostic tests on failing cars. Tesla also charges him retail price for its parts, unlike the wholesale prices he gets from outfits like Honda or Hyundai, for example, where discounts or price cuts are built into the dealer’s business model with after-market shops. “And [Tesla] wouldn’t have a delivery service, so we’re paying to get it shipped to us. With other dealers, they would deliver to us, and we would get a 20 to 30 percent discount on every part,” he says.

Sure, Teslas don’t require as much maintenance and owners save on gas. But for large parts and mechanical problems, a Tesla owner is often looking at paying double the price a standard combustion engine vehicle would. Paying $160 or more for tire repairs compared to $100 for standard vehicles, or $2,000 to $4,000 for brakes compared to around $1,500, can sting. And those higher costs don’t translate to greater earnings for mechanics—just pricier parts and, occasionally, more complex or intensive labour.

And it’s not just Tesla, Chow says. In recent years, some manufacturers have rushed to enter the EV market, resulting in imperfect manufacturing—he’s seeing more instances of breakdowns that just aren’t worth the labour and time it’d take to fix them, if they can be fixed at all. “When the margin is at zero, there’s really no incentive, right?” he says.

“[Manufacturers and dealers] are taking business away from small brokers, because the parts are not available, and we don’t have the equipment…Anything they charge you, you have no choice.”

Others see more sense in the early-market maneuvers dealers and manufacturers are making. “The parts are expensive, and [there’s risk of] damage installing it or programming it incorrectly,” says Mark Sherry, a trainer and curriculum developer for auto repair education, who has worked with Nissan, GM, and Centennial College, among others. His argument echoes what auto manufacturers told the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in a May 2021 inquiry into anticompetitive practices in the repair sector: they cited data security, the protection of intellectual property, quality of service, and the potential for reputational damage should a third party hinder the operations of a vehicle, as reasons to restrict access to particular diagnostic tools, parts, and data. In response, the trade commission concluded that “although manufacturers have offered numerous explanations for their repair restrictions, the majority are not supported by the record.” But this opinion is not universally held: just two years later, a California judge threw out a class action lawsuit against Tesla that claimed the company was limiting competition by charging higher prices and causing longer wait times for third-party repairs.

Sherry believes that auto technicians also bear some responsibility for being shut out of EVs. “To be honest, the biggest problem is that most mechanics hate electrical, and they hate hydraulics…So there’s a lot of resistance to that from a technician standpoint,” he says.

This is hotly debated. Many assume that the skills required to service an EV would be entirely different than the ones used for decades to service combustion engines—but that’s not the case, says Christopher Syme, a lifelong mechanic who used to run a shop in Toronto’s east end, and now teaches at Centennial College. “Cars have been adopting new technologies and evolving at an increasingly rapid speed since the early ‘90s,” he says. “We work with high voltage, with alternating currents, with all of these systems that have gradually culminated in hybrid or electric vehicles…We’ve been forced to adapt and work on it for years and years and years.”

Any competent mechanic could, with the right tools and training, be able to make the switch, Syme says. While political rhetoric paints climate-friendly policies as “some kind of catastrophe for working-class people,” he adds, the much bigger threats are the general affordability issues plaguing independent Toronto businesses. “Even if it didn’t go electric, we would be facing a crisis in terms of justifying the cost of proprietary equipment and tools.”

Professor Michael Lomnicki (middle) teaches a class on how to safely service electric vehicles at Centennial College School of Transportation in Toronto.

The Local and The Narwhal spoke with instructors and leaders at some of Ontario’s biggest automotive technology programs: all of them said the most crucial skill needed for EV repairs is critical thinking, and fostering that skill early helps ensure no student is kept out of an evolving automotive field. The instructors admit it has become a slightly more complex arena for students to navigate. But they’re being trained accordingly: at Toronto’s Centennial College and Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, education and training on the basics of EVs and hybrid vehicles have become a mandatory part of the curriculum for all incoming students. And students aspiring to build careers working on cars should be introduced to EVs right from high school, argues Kevin Fam, a teacher in the TDSB’s Experiential Learning program. Fam used to work in management with hybrid manufacturers. Now, he’s pushing to update a 10-year-old auto shop curriculum to reflect the innovation in the sector, and get high school students into early placements with manufacturers.

But the industry that these students will be entering, and the role independent auto repair shops will be allowed to play in it, is still uncertain. Right now, says Mark Sherry, the dearth of regulation means the EV sector is “a little bit like the Wild West.” But Canada takes many of its cues on automotive regulation from the U.S., and at the moment, south of the border, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is reviewing a repair bill that would mandate auto manufacturers to provide information relating to diagnostics, repair, and services to the vehicle’s owner upon request. In Canada, a broader repair bill C-244, amending the Copyright Act, will allow Canadians to access their own data to diagnose and fix certain products, including vehicles. This would be the first step towards the auto-specific right to repair legislation promised by the Liberals in the 2023 budget—the kind of protections that would stop independent and lifelong auto mechanics like Shahwali Wali and James Chow from being shut out of the industry.

Ultimately, mechanics also need to decide whether it’s worth the personal investment to adapt. In The Junction, Wali is thinking about retirement. Even if right to repair is enshrined in law, rising costs and changing clientele could mean he’s better off closing up shop, or leaving it to his brother. “I bought this place for cheap once. Now they want to build a condominium here,” Wali laughs resignedly.

Meanwhile, in Richmond Hill, Chow is keeping an eye on conversations unfolding in the U.S. and Canada. Progress has been slow and tenuous, with dealers and manufacturers figuring out how they want the new age of EVs to unfold, how they want to wield their power. At Chow’s shop, EV repairs are becoming more feasible, with more data from Tesla’s repair manual made accessible earlier this year. “We are starting to see options,” he says cautiously. When we spoke again in June, Chow’s shop was getting more referrals from Tesla and Michelin for EV repairs that don’t need dealer expertise. He’s seen a steady uptick in Teslas coming to the shop, sometimes multiple in a day. It could be just a coincidence, Chow says. Or, if manufacturers align their goals with those of independent repair shops and their customers—by choice or through regulation—it could just be a glimpse into the future.