“People are just so happy to see you arrive, especially if it’s a breakdown on a motorway. That’s a scary place to come to a halt, you know. When you’ve big trucks going past at 90km/h, they cause a side-draft that can rock your car on its wheels. So when we get there we pull the van in behind the member’s car, with every light flashing, and turn the front wheels into the side – that way if there’s an impact the van takes it and gets pushed into the barrier, protecting whatever’s in front.”
Trevor Freeman is casually driving his bright yellow AA Ireland Transit around some of the leafier suburbs of southwest Dublin. The sun is shining, and we even have the windows down for a bit of fresh air. It's positively bucolic, and people in other cars are happy to pause and let the big dayglo van out of side turnings. In a changing world the AA still commands a bit of respect and affection, it seems.
Or, for that matter, sheer gratitude. The idea of a cold, wet night on the hard shoulder of a lonely motorway is the antipode of the day we’re currently enjoying, but it’s then when you really need, want, pray for Trevor and his van to come into sight.
For all the insurance and finance deals that the AA can now provide, it’s situations such as these that the service was built on. But for how much longer?
We’re well on the road to an all-electric car market, and that could change things for the AA and for other providers of roadside assistance. Electric cars are, quite simply, simpler. A combustion engine needs hundreds of moving parts, working with perfect precision to make motive power from controlled explosions of hydrocarbons. An electric car, by contrast, needs just one moving part - a rotating electric motor.
However, there are complexities that won't go away, reckons Simon Benson. Benson is the managing director of roadside operations for AA Ireland, and he tells The Irish Times that: "Roadside is the AA. It's what we're built on. We are first and foremost a roadside recovery business that also does other things. We go on between 124,000 and 130,000 call-outs every year. In fact, if you average it out over the past 10 years we've been out to see as many cars as there are in use in Ireland, around two million. So that puts it into perspective."
Indeed it does, but surely that’s talking about times past? Isn’t AA membership a thing for older people, people who care about their cars, which apparently younger people in Ireland simply don’t?
“Actually, I think as cars are becoming more technologically advanced that actually does create a worry in people” says Benson. “So whereas previously it was ‘is the engine going to break down, or are the brakes going to fail’ now it’s ‘am I going to run out of charge?’
“I think it’s a shifting balance, and the younger generation are actually used to, when things go wrong, looking to their phones and apps for a solution. They want to swipe left to sort the problem, and that’s the service we provide. So there’s a reassurance that we’re always there for you, and that is I think something that resonates with the younger generation.”
The AA already has a partial solution to running out of charge in an EV as some of its vans have on-board charging units, which can provide enough power to get a stranded EV moving again, at least as far as the nearest charging point. Speaking of points, the point is made that while EVs are mechanically simpler than combustion cars, they’re still complex, with multiple points of potential failure.
“We’ve upgraded our towing systems” Trevor Freeman tells The Irish Times, pointing to a big foldaway wheeled device tucked into the back of his Transit. It looks like a Transformer, but actually it’s a built-in trailer that unfolds and allows a car to be towed to safety, repair, or both if it’s one of the two out of 10 that can’t be sorted at the roadside. For electric cars, and indeed for four-wheel drive vehicles, there’s also an extra freewheeling section which can be placed under the back wheels to make towing easier, safer, and not damaging to the batteries and charging systems. And batteries are actually the most common cause of call-outs for Trevor.
“Especially during and after Covid, you could see that lots of cars had been left sitting around, and the batteries had run down, and then the car simply won’t start. That’s the only time people might get a bit shirty with you – they get stressed because they’re trying to get to work, or to school, and the car’s not starting and maybe they’re worries about a big expensive repair” says Freeman.
“That’s the job, to reassure them, and then usually it does turn out to be the battery. We have a big booster box which is surge protected so it’s not going to affect the car’s electrical system. That’s enough to get most cars started again, and get their batteries charging up. It’s the most common fault we attend.”
Tyres are often a call-out trigger too. “Lots of cars don’t come with a spare wheel,” Freeman tells The Irish Times. “Those squirt-and-inflate systems are only useful if you’ve maybe picked up a nail in the tyre, but if you’ve clipped the edge of a pothole and put a big hole in the tyre, all the foam that you squirt in is just going to come straight back out.”
The AA’s solution for this is a universal spare wheel, a space-saver unit with seven different central hubs, the layout of which will fit pretty much any car. Trevor – or any AA patrol – will then follow the stranded driver to the nearest tyre fitting centre and take back the universal spare for the next call-out.
Our first call-out is, predictably, a flat battery. A couple have tried to start their 10-year old Hyundai, and it's not responding. Trevor and I attend, and it's pretty obvious that the little i10 hatchback is hardly ever driven, so it's not getting a chance to charge up its battery.
Recharging and health-checking the battery takes only a few minutes, but then we are thrown a curveball. The car’s owner tells us that it’s due an NCT tomorrow, and the windscreen washers appear to be blocked. Easy, we reckon – a quick fiddle with a pin should unblock clogged washer jets, and an NCT failure can be avoided.
It turns out to be not that simple. The blockage is at the bottom of the water tank that feeds the washers, and to get at it we have to jack up the front of the car, and remove the headlight and part of the front wheelarch. When Trevor finally gets to the root of the problem it turns out to be ages-old screenwash, which has collected at the bottom of the tank and somehow jellified. We dig out two handfuls of this goop to unclog the system, and then set about rebuilding the front of the car again.
“We’re not under specific time pressure,” Trevor tells The Irish Times. “Each job takes what it takes, and it’s only if a car is in a dangerous place that we have to make a call about moving it. Otherwise it’s whatever the member needs. That washer jet was only a simple problem, but we’ve fixed it for him and now he’ll fly through the NCT tomorrow, so everyone’s happy.”
So happy, in fact, that the gentleman with the Hyundai tries to press a crisp €20 note into Trevor’s hand as we leave, which, of course, is politely turned down.
The next job is, once again, a battery problem. This time it’s a six-year old Ford Focus which is struggling to start thanks to a depleted battery. The AA member who’s called us out has decided to pre-empt things and simply order a new battery, which we collect from a motor parts supplier on the way. Again it seems like a simple task, but Trevor has to once again disassemble quite a few parts under the bonnet simply to get at the battery.
“Car designers have to squeeze these things in, I suppose” he says as he gently wiggles a recalcitrant air filter loose. “But they certainly don’t think about guys like us when they do.”
Batteries have kept us busy all morning, and batteries will keep Trevor busy for some time to come, he reckons.
“What we see now is people forgetting to turn off the ignition in their electric cars” he tells The Irish Times. “There’s no engine noise to remind them, so then they come out the next morning and, whoops, there’s no charge left.
“On top of that there’s always going to be the mechanical element, at least for the time begin. The cars we worked on today, they’re the classic cars of tomorrow. You’ll always have clutches going, and brakes seizing, so there’s mechanical work there for decades yet.”
Mechanical and electrical. Right now most car companies will simply not let anyone but a highly-trained main-dealer technician anywhere near an electric car’s traction battery, such are the complexities and physical dangers involved. That’s changing though, and AA patrols are being up-skilled to work on such things in the future.
“The up-skilling, and the advancing of technical knowledge is crucial to the future” says Simon Benson. “We want to maximise the amount of things we can repair at the roadside, simply because that’s our USP [unique selling proposition], and – critically – we want to make sure our patrols are working in a safe environment.”
Some environments are safer than others, of course. While a wet motorway hard shoulder might be dangerous enough for you or I, Freeman has been to places far more hazardous than that, such as the border of Ukraine as that country reeled from the Russian invasion. "We had two days to get everything together," Freeman tells The Irish Times.
"Gardaí were organising a convoy of vans, and one 6.5-tonne truck, to go to Ukraine with medical supplies, and we had just two days to put together an inventory of spares and equipment to go along and support them. Dave Kearney and I from the AA went, and we packed all the things you'd expect – alternators, fan belts, bulbs, brake pads, batteries for every vehicle.
“We’d get up early every morning and collect the keys to all the vans from everyone at breakfast, and then go and check them over for fluids, lights, tyres, everything. We repaired blown turbo pipes, sorted a blown tyre on the big truck, and had lots of punctures on the vans. One of the vans was burning lots of oil so we were constantly topping that up.
"We had to drive through a massive blizzard in Poland, where the visibility was down to around six metres. It was a massive relief once we got there. We went to the border between Poland and Ukraine first, and then down south to a Red Cross camp in Slovakia. It was a bit overwhelming, actually. I had a bit of a lump in my throat when we arrived in Slovakia."
If Trevor can keep a medical convoy to Ukraine on the road, then he can probably get your car restarted, or rescue your stranded EV too. The motoring world might be changing but I reckon it’ll still be a relief to see those yellow vans in your mirror on a dark and stormy night.