How car breakdown services are changing

Roadside assistance services are now having to deal with larger, heavier cars and electric vehicles. Here's how they’re innovating...

car breakdown

The UK’s changing car market is posing a whole new set of challenges for those whose job it is to repair or recover vehicles if they break down.

Standard breakdown service trucks can only tow vehicles weighing 2.2-2.5 tonnes, but cars are becoming larger and heavier due to the popularity of SUVs and the growing uptake of hybrid and electric cars with weighty battery packs. In fact, a growing number are now too heavy to be towed by a standard recovery truck; around 10%, according to the RAC.

There are additional issues with electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, if they run out of charge or suffer other problems. Patrol staff need extra knowledge of electronics to work on them, and many car makers state that they can’t be towed because it could damage their motors; they need to be lifted up completely if they need transporting. 

breakdown services

There’s also the ongoing problem posed by the fact that more and more new cars are being sold with tyre inflation kits rather than a spare wheel. Breakdown patrols need quick and efficient ways to help owners of these cars if their kit doesn’t fix a puncture. 

1. Coping with heavier, larger vehicles and EVs

Although the aim for breakdown assistance firms is to fix as many of their members’ cars as possible at the roadside, that’s not always possible. If you’ve already waited 30 minutes to an hour for a patrol to reach you, it’s disappointing, to say the least, if they can’t help and simply have to request a flatbed truck to be dispatched, meaning another wait. 

That’s why the RAC is introducing 50 custom-built heavy-duty vehicles to its recovery fleet. The Isuzu D-Max 4x4s are capable of recovering EVs, heavy SUVs and four-wheel-drive cars that could normally be transported only on a flatbed trailer.

car breakdown

The Heavy Duty 4x4 Patrol vans have a 1.9-litre diesel engine and the capacity to tow vehicles weighing up to 2.8 tonnes, so they’re able to handle 90% of cars and light commercial vans on the road. This means vehicles that can’t be fixed at the roadside can be transported by the first patrol to reach them, rather than having to wait for a second recovery vehicle. 

The vans will enter service this month, in time for the summer holiday getaway. However, rather than deploying them in the countryside, the RAC will use them in the UK’s busiest cities, where it’s not easy or desirable to send a large flatbed truck. 

Each van is fitted with a new four-wheeled trailer that folds out of the loadbed. Called All-Wheels-Up, the trailer elevates all four of a car’s wheels so that it can be recovered.

This new trailer system has also been fitted to 600 of the RAC’s 1600-strong fleet of standard recovery vans. The compact nature of the specially designed trailer means the vans are still able to carry all the parts and tools usually used by patrols.

2. EVs that run out of charge

Both the AA and the RAC acknowledge that with more electric vehicles on our roads, the likelihood of them running out of charge is increasing, so they’re working on ways to replenish their batteries. The AA says it attends around 3000 EV breakdowns a year, and this figure is rising rapidly. 

car breakdown

Although it says most EV breakdowns aren’t related to the car running out of charge, as a short-term solution, all AA patrols carry Polar charging cards so they can take EVs to the nearest charging point for a free top-up. The RAC, meanwhile, has designed a lightweight mobile charger that will be fitted to its Ford Transit Custom patrol vans.

The EV Boost charger works with Type 1 and 2 sockets, enabling it to charge 99% of electric vehicles, and typically provides 10 miles of range from a 30-minute charge. Power comes from a generator that’s permanently attached to the van’s engine.

The RAC believes the EV Boost solution is faster and produces less air pollution than the alternative options of either towing the dead vehicle or carrying an additional large battery to supply the charge. 

car breakdown

The first six vehicles equipped with the chargers will be on the road from June, located in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester. The equipment will be rolled out in other areas as demand for it arises. At present, they’re providing a 3.5kW charge, but faster 7kW units are being developed.

The AA is taking a different approach to solving this problem. It's trialling a patrol vehicle with charging equipment that uses energy stored in battery packs that are trickle-charged while the van is in normal use. This means the van’s engine doesn’t need to be running while charging an EV. It’s also compatible with Type 1 and 2 charging plugs and can provide 30-40 miles of range, adding about seven miles of range in 15 minutes.

3. Punctures on cars without spare wheels 

The RAC launched its universal spare wheel in 2014 in response to the growing number of cars being sold with only tyre inflation kits. Since then, these wheels have been used more than two million times to help get drivers moving again. In 2018 alone, RAC patrols dealt with nearly 200,000 ‘puncture no spare’ breakdowns – an increase of 84% compared with 2012. Its patrol vehicles now carry four and five-stud versions of the wheel that are said to fit 99% of the cars on British roads. 

The patrol helps the member book a repair or replacement at a convenient time with a local approved tyre specialist, and the customer can simply leave the universal spare there for the RAC to collect later. 

car breakdown

The AA says its Multi-fit wheel, introduced in 2016, is used around 1000 times per week by its patrols. It fits 90% of cars that don’t carry a spare as standard, and the AA is currently working on a second-generation, heavy-duty version that will also fit SUVs, vans, commercial vehicles and vehicles with large brake callipers. Like the RAC, its patrols will carry both types of spare wheel when the new one becomes available later this year. 

4. Helping cars with broken suspension

With 9% of respondents to the latest What Car? Reliability Survey telling us their car suffered a suspension fault, this is a major area of concern for motorists and breakdown providers. 

car breakdown

The AA has therefore developed modified suspension blocks to help cars with broken springs drive a short distance to a garage rather than having to be recovered. The blocks fit to the suspension struts and provide a small amount of ability to absorb shocks on rough roads. The blocks are currently being trialled and used in breakdowns by a number of patrols across the country.

5. Hydrogen vehicles that run out of fuel 

Although there are hardly any hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on our roads at present, many in the industry predict they will eventually overtake battery electric vehicles as the most common type of car, and the AA has already started working on a way to get them going again if they run out of gas. The EV charging vehicle it’s trialling also carries a hydrogen dispenser capable of topping up a fuel cell vehicle at the roadside with enough fuel for it to cover 35-50 miles. 

car breakdown

The van was used earlier this year to support a Hyundai Nexo when it did a 1000-mile road trip around the UK. The emergency top-up it gave the car at the roadside is thought to be the world’s first.

What is the best breakdown cover for my car? 

Car breakdown cover is something you pay for but hope you won’t have to use. However, if your car does let you down, you’ll want to know that help is on the way quickly, especially if you’re stranded at the side of a motorway or on an unlit country lane at night. You’ll also want your car either fixed on the spot or transported to a suitable repairer.

So, as part of this year’s What Car? Reliability Survey, we asked 15,384 motorists to tell us whether their car had broken down in the previous 12 months and how well they were looked after if they’d called out a roadside assistance service. Only a small proportion (1143 cars) suffered a breakdown, with 65% of that group (746) calling out the AA, the RAC, Green Flag or Allianz Assistance, four of the biggest breakdown providers in the UK.

The first area we focused on was how long the patrol took to reach them. The best sped to their rescue in less than 30 minutes and the worst sloped along more than two hours later. 

The other main question was how well the problem was resolved. The best patrols fixed the fault at the roadside, enabling the stranded motorist to continue with their journey. The least satisfactory outcome was that the broken-down car wasn’t fixed and wasn’t taken to a garage for repairs.

How long did it take for assistance to arrive? 

Company AA Green Flag RAC Allianz Assistance
Less than 30 minutes 18.0% 4.2% 11.0% 3.1%
30 minutes to 1 hour 46.8% 49.3% 37.6% 45.3%
1-2 hours 21.8% 31.0% 27.2% 25.0%
More than 2 hours 13.5% 15.5% 24.3% 26.6%
Average (hours) 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4

The award for speediest service goes to the AA. Its average arrival time was 1.1 hours and it got to nearly a fifth of breakdowns in less than 30 minutes. Patrols got to nearly half in between 30 minutes and an hour, while only 13.5% of its members had to wait more than two hours – the lowest number out of the four services.

In response to the results, AA president Edmund King said: “AA patrols often say they attend to the member first, then the vehicle. This dedication shines through in the service they deliver for around 10,000 drivers every day; fixing eight out of 10 cars at the roadside and typically arriving at a breakdown in less than an hour. We’re thrilled that the experiences of our members clearly reflect our commitment to delivering the best possible service when they need us.”

Second overall was Green Flag, with an average arrival time of 1.2 hours. Although it reached only a small number of stranded motorists in less than half an hour, it came out on top in the 30-60-minute category, attending half of call-outs in that time. 

Nearly a third of Green Flag members were required to wait one to two hours for help to arrive, though – the highest percentage in this time frame and 9% more than the AA. Fortunately, fewer of its members had to wait more than two hours than any of the others apart from the AA.

A Green Flag spokesperson said: “We never aim to stand still and always seek to improve on what the What Car? comparison already highlights, which is Green Flag providing great service and value for our customers.”

The RAC ranked second to the AA when it came to getting to breakdowns in less than half an hour, but it was let down somewhat by having fewer patrols on site in 30-60 minutes than any of its rivals and failing to reach nearly a quarter of breakdowns in less than two hours – significantly worse than the AA and Green Flag. As a result, it ranked third overall with an average response time of 1.3 hours.

In defence of its service, the RAC said: “We are proud of the excellent service our highly skilled patrols provide at the roadside and their impressive four-out-of-five fix rate for the two million-plus breakdowns they attend every year.”

Allianz Assistance took the longest to reach stranded motorists. Its patrols reached only 3% of cars in less than half an hour and 27% of car owners waited more than two hours. In response, it said: “Allianz Partners UK works closely with car makers to deliver a service that achieves strong performance and customer satisfaction levels, which are monitored continuously to ensure they’re maintained.”

How well was the problem resolved? 

Company AA Green Flag RAC Allianz Assistance
Permanently fixed 17.3% 7.0% 21.4% 8.7%
Temporarily fixed 28.2% 25.4% 22.0% 20.3%
Not fixed, towed to location of choice 9.9% 19.7% 9.8% 6.3%
Not fixed, towed to garage of choice 37.2% 42.3% 42.2% 62.5%
Not fixed, not towed anywhere 7.4% 5.6% 4.6% 3.1%
Top two outcomes combined 46% 32% 43% 28%

The RAC fared better when it came to resolving problems, with the highest proportion (21%) of cars permanently fixed at the roadside so motorists could carry on with their journeys. However, if you look at the combination of the two best outcomes – permanent or temporary fixes that let motorists continue on their way – the AA comes out on top, fixing 46% of cars, versus 43% for the RAC. 

Although Green Flag’s patrols didn’t permanently fix many cars, they did well for temporary fixes, helping 25% of members to continue their journey. Allianz also carried out only a small number of permanent fixes, along with the lowest number of temporary solutions. In fact, the most common outcome for its members was to be towed to a garage. 

Which brands broke down most often? 

Brand % of cars that broke down
30. Land Rover 14.2%
29. Citroën 13.3%
28. Jeep  12.5%
27. Nissan 11.4%
26. Fiat 11.2%
25. Vauxhall 11.1%
24. Porsche 10.0%
23. Renault 9.7%
22. Mini 8.3%
21. Alfa Romeo 8.2%
=19. Peugeot 8.0%
=19. Ford 8.0%
18. Honda 7.8%
17. Volkswagen 7.1%
16. Mercedes-Benz 7.0%
15. Volvo 6.8%
=13.Mitsubishi 6.5%
=13. Audi 6.5%
12. Jaguar 6.3%
=10. Subaru 6.1%
=10. Mazda 6.1%
=8. Seat 5.8%
=8. BMW 5.8%
7. Skoda 5.2%
6. Toyota 5.0%
=4. Kia 4.8%
=4. Hyundai  4.8%
3. Lexus 3.2%
2. Suzuki 3.0%
1. Dacia 2.5%

Next: What type of breakdown cover do you need? >

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