Martin Whittaker goes on patrol training with the RAC at the organisation's Midlands headquarters
THE car won't start and a rookie RAC patrolman is given the task of finding the fault. It could be anything from a flat battery to a serious problem with the car's computerised engine management system. But this isn't a real breakdown.
It's all done at the RAC's Midlands headquarters on computer simulators - state-of-the-art mock-ups of a modern car engine, designed to get new patrol staff up to speed with roadside repairs before they even set foot on the roadside.
The use of such technology is part of the RAC's bid to revolutionise its training. And this month the organisation launches a new set of national vocational qualifications, which will give its 1,250 patrol staff recognised qualifications for the first time.
The NVQs are among a package of new qualifications being introduced by the Institute of the Motor Industry to address skill shortages across a range of motor trades.
"It's nice to come out with a qualification that says the industry recognises that they can do their job," says RAC motoring services' regional trainer, Neil Hanks.
He says the job has changed since he became a patrolman more than 20 years ago. "Certainly, the pace of technology is increasing every day. And I think the way we live has speeded up. Years ago, we might have concentrated on fixing the vehicle. You could get the parts then - the technology wasn't so great. Now it's much more complicated."
Up to eight years ago, the RAC trained its patrol staff in a more traditional workshop setting, with groups of trainees working on an engine.
But the company found this way of training uneven - the more able ones moved ahead faster. And the logistics of pulling in its trainees from throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a series of courses became too great. Instead, the RAC developed an open learning programme, allowing patrol staff to study at home and fill in any gaps in their knowledge.
The RAC is looking for people with good technical skills who are also good at looking after motorists, often under stress. "The first issue on the roadside is what state the customer is in," says RAC spokesman Peter Brill.
"They might have a car full of children whom they've got to get to school. Or it could be somebody heading for a business meeting for a del worth pound;8 million. That's where the stress levels are."
Training is rigorous. New recruits go through a three-week induction process before they get their breakdown vehicle and go out on the road.
During a six-month probationary period, they work through the distance learning programme and get help with any areas where knowledge may be lacking. Meanwhile, every job they do is monitored via new technology - patrol staff carry a mobile computer and the job details are keyed in.
The RAC offers new trainees help with any areas in which they may be weak. But at the end of their probationary six months, if they don't come up to scratch, they're out.
"We have vehicles of every age and make that have ever been on British roads, and in all kinds of condition," says David Bizley, the RAC's technical director.
That forces the organisation to think quite hard about how they train people. An ability to learn is an absolute key feature of recruiting.
"It's no good having someone who happens to understand today's technology, but isn't capable of continuing to learn and adapt. That's one of the biggest challenges we have to face."
Incredibly, among its army of "knights of the road", the RAC has not been able to employ a single woman. According to spokesman Peter Brill, it's not for want of trying.
"It is something we want to change. We think there are a couple of reasons for it - the majority of female technicians tend to go into the forces.
"And those we do find don't tend to have the basic skills. We nearly signed our first patrolwoman three months ago, but she didn't make it."
Or could it be that women have more sense, given the nature of the job? You're out in all weather, at all hours of the day or night, dealing with stressed out motorists.
But, despite the march of technology, and cars becoming ever more complex, it's strangely comforting to know that one of the most common call-outs is still to people who have locked their keys in their car.
Peter Brill says: "One of the best examples we had was a group of Americans who had hired a luxury executive car - somehow they managed to lock themselves into the vehicle.
"We don't understand how they did it, but they did it."
For further information on the new motor industry national vocational qualifications, contact the Institute of the Motor Industry on 01992 511521.