The Dealers' Choice 

Carmakers thwart neighborhood mechanics and foil drivers, critics say, by withholding information needed for repairs.

If you drive a car minted within the past decade, you probably know what happens after the "check engine" light comes on: Your mechanic hooks up a scan tool to the car's computerized on-board diagnostic system to tell him what's wrong. Nowadays, so many car parts are computer-controlled that trying to diagnose and repair breakdowns without an electronic diagnostics system is like trying to solve your PC's software glitches with a hammer.

While wrenches and screwdrivers once worked for any car, today's troubleshooting and repair tools can be model-specific and often prohibitively expensive. Worse for independent garages, automakers often hoard proprietary information needed to diagnose the full range of car problems in order to give their dealerships a competitive edge. Some East Bay independents say this is forcing them to spend many thousands of dollars annually to keep up on technology, and in some cases limit the makes they service. For drivers, this means going to the dealership -- and paying exorbitant dealership prices -- is the only option for some repairs.

Berkeley's Oceanworks, for example, maintains two diagnostic scan tools that cost the garage a total of $10,000. Owner Angus Powelson estimates he spends as much as another $8,000 annually on software updates. Knowing he'd have to buy a third scanner to service Volkswagens, and that the company has a reputation for being stingy with diagnostic information, Powelson decided to stop doing most VW repairs. "There is a big wall around their data and I'd have to buy a $5,000 machine, so I passed on that," he says. "If you have a 'check engine' light on on a Volkswagen, I have to tell you to take it to the dealer."

Being a generalist can cost a shop dearly -- Oakland's High Street Auto Center has laid out $16,000 for three scan tools, plus about $3,000 in yearly software updates. "We are one of the fortunate ones," says manager Rodel Flores, who adds that some competitors are having more trouble staying afloat: "The independents that cannot afford to buy the right equipment to do the job right are going to be phased out, and I am not going to let that happen at our shop."

Digital tools are needed to suss out problems in a car's computer-controlled systems -- many general engine functions, emissions, airbags, antilock brakes, tire pressure, and climate control, to name a few. These systems are surprisingly interconnected: In some models, a bad airbag module makes the engine run rough, or a stuck trunk latch or missing gas cap can activate the "check engine" light. Sometimes the on-board computer itself is the culprit, in which case technicians upload software patches to fix the bug -- no wrench required.

The new technology has benefits, of course -- improved gas mileage, for instance, and features such as antilock brakes and airbags, which save lives. It's not the technology mechanics are criticizing, but the withholding of information by automakers. Local shop owners say that even if they pony up for the proprietary tools, the tools are inferior to those the dealerships get.

Scan tools are generally made by third-party manufacturers, which depend on the automakers for information. Although trade groups such as the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers claim indies get the same tools at the same price, spokesman Paul Ryan admits that automakers hold back information relating to antitheft systems, such as "immobilizers" which kill the ignition. Other info might be left out by the scan-tool makers, he says, to make a tool that can be used on a broader range of cars. "They may not use all the information that is available from a particular manufacturer for all the potential problems that someone can encounter," he says.

But holding back information, particularly for the security system, can create real problems. In some late-model cars, for instance, the immobilizer activates if the battery dies. Since independent shops can't access security-system information, the car must be taken to a dealer for reprogramming. Similarly, some ignition systems use keys that contain computer chips -- if there's a problem with the key, or the ignition, only the dealer is authorized to fix it. Given how common dead batteries and damaged keys are, this can leave drivers in a serious and costly lurch -- forget calling a mobile locksmith or having AAA tow you to a nearby service station. And heaven forbid you break down on a remote road, or on a Friday night when the dealer doesn't open until Monday.

Ultimately it's a consumer-choice issue, says Sandy Bass-Cors, executive director of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), a national group pushing for legislative reform. You own the car, she says, so shouldn't you be able to take it to the mechanic of your choice? "Customers have a more personal experience with an independent shop," adds Stephanie Salmon, director of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association. "The smaller independent shop also has less overhead costs than a dealer and can offer lower hourly labor rates."

But that convenience is lost if the mechanic has to send the driver to a dealer -- in a 2004 survey commissioned by CARE, 67 percent of aftermarket auto shops and auto parts retailers reported having sent customers to a dealership because they lacked the needed information or tools. Even a single-brand shop such as Berkeley Motor Works, which services only BMWs and has invested $25,000 in scan tools, still has to turn away the occasional customer for lack of the right software or upgrades, service manager Carol Seiden says.

This past summer, CARE took its concerns to Congress during hearings for HR 2048, also known as the Right to Repair Act. It's the final showdown in a fight that began in the Bay Area in 1999, when then-state Senator John Burton of San Francisco pushed through legislation requiring automakers to make available all their emissions-control technology so that any garage could perform smog checks. In 2003, the US Environmental Protection Agency made this mandatory nationwide. The new bill, from Texas Republican Joe Barton, would force automakers to make available all information needed to make repairs on any part of a car. It is currently in committee.

Industry spokesman Ryan says that the bill is not only unnecessary, but that making too much information public is dangerous. Antitheft information should be withheld to protect car owners' privacy, he says, although he adds that automakers are negotiating ways to release some info to locksmiths and law-enforcement groups to prevent drivers from getting stranded. Manufacturers also are worried, he said, that technological transparency would allow people to make illegal or hazardous changes to their cars -- to soup up engines in violation of emissions standards, for example, or add tires that are incompatible with the car's braking system. "You don't want somebody coming in with the ability to reprogram a central part of the vehicle to make them essentially out of compliance," Ryan says.

Critics say the industry is motivated by money, not safety standards. Aftermarket shops currently perform 75 to 80 percent of post-warranty repairs, they say, and automakers are just trying to elbow in on that lucrative market given that service, not sales, constitutes the biggest chunk of most dealerships' profits. "It's just big business hiding the informational cards in their hand and not distributing it out to little businesses," says Dennis DeCoto, executive director of the California Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, headquartered in Novato. He believes manufacturers should have to make complete diagnostic information available within three years of a model's introduction -- about the time warranties begin to expire. "I'm not saying they have to give it away," he says. "They can sell it, but they need to make it affordable and compatible."

Independent shops know that having to work with onboard diagnostic systems is now just a fact of life -- as shop manager Seiden drily puts it, "Technicians have to be computer geeks." But if there's one thing computer geeks resent, it's proprietary code -- almost as much as the rest of us dread the idea that one day that dashboard light will come on, the car will seize up, and our trusted neighborhood mechanic won't be able to do a thing about it.

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