Diagnostic codes stalling independent mechanics

Technology steering repair jobs to dealers

Mike Toombs of Mike's Brake & Alignment works at his shop in Fort Worth last month. Toombs has had trouble reading automotive computer service codes. Mike Toombs of Mike's Brake & Alignment works at his shop in Fort Worth last month. Toombs has had trouble reading automotive computer service codes. (Khampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Via McClatchy-Tribune)

FORT WORTH -- Mike Toombs prides himself on his auto shop being able to fix ailing vehicles.

That's why he would rather do almost anything than send a vehicle brought into his Fort Worth shop to a dealership's service center.

But with more computer technology going into cars -- and the costs of equipment needed to understand the computer codes -- there are times he has no other choice.

"Sometimes it comes to a point where, if it doesn't set a code, I have no way of watching what the engine is doing," said Toombs, owner of Mike's Brake and Alignment Shop. "With the equipment I have, I can only go so far."

He and other independent mechanics across the nation face a similar problem in fixing newer vehicles: diagnostic computer systems, installed as required under the Clean Air Act, that use some proprietary codes to identify vehicles' problems.

Mechanics can buy costly equipment and subscribe to Internet sites or manuals to decipher many of the codes, but some still can only be read by the dealerships.

A group of lawmakers, including U S Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, say that's not fair to consumers.

They introduced a bill, the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act, to try to counter such problems. If approved, the measure would direct the Federal Trade Commission to draw up rules giving independent repair shops, and vehicle owners themselves, access to the same information as franchised dealerships, according to Barton's office.

"Consumers have long valued the ability to choose where to have their automobiles serviced and repaired," Barton spokeswoman Karen Modlin said. "Before the introduction of . . . [this] technology, independent shops and franchise dealerships were essentially on a level playing field when it came to the ability to service and repair cars.

"Today, independent repair shops are facing obsoleteness due to a lack of information necessary to operate on vehicles," she said. "A decrease in competition threatens to drive up the costs to consumers."

If the measure doesn't pass, consumers will lose, independent mechanics say.

Barton and others say the bill would help mechanics because the onboard diagnostic systems control functions ranging from braking to steering.

The code information, typically given to dealerships, can be difficult or costly for independent mechanics to acquire. Scanners designed to identify some of the codes can cost thousands of dollars a year for the newest version. Other available equipment is costly as well.

Lawmakers say higher costs to mechanics mean higher costs to car owners.

"I believe consumers need to have choice in auto repair, whether foreign or domestic, and they should be able to choose where they have the vehicle repaired," Barton said when he testified about the bill last year. "The legislation has one purpose: putting vehicle owners in the driver's seat when it comes to choosing where to have their car repaired."

Automakers have been fighting the proposal, contending that it aims to free "calibration codes" that show how parts are made.

Others say the legislation simply is not needed.

Ron Pyle, president of the Bedford, Texas-based Automotive Service Association, criticized some shops for not adding equipment or training needed to fully diagnose problems in newer vehicles.

Although his group initiated the bill several years ago, it now opposes the measure because, he said, automakers provide much of the information needed at an affordable rate.

"It's just the cost of doing business," Pyle said. "A lot of shops have not made adjustments. . . . They somehow believe the car should be less sophisticated or less secure and perhaps the technology will go backwards. That's not likely to happen."

The Tire Industry Association, meanwhile, argues that the bill is needed, saying that a "handshake agreement" between the automotive association and auto manufacturers to provide information doesn't guarantee that it will be affordable.

"If these manufacturers plan to keep their end of the agreement and make information accessible and affordable to independent service providers, this legislation only backs up their commitment to the automotive service industry," wrote Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Bowie, Md.-based organization, in a statement on the group's website.

"The fact that these manufacturers oppose this legislation causes me to question their commitment to the agreement and forces [the tire association] to keep supporting the legislation."

The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association also supports the measure.

And if it doesn't pass this year, they hope it will be reintroduced next year.

"Nearly every system on today's vehicles is controlled by computers," said Aaron Lowe, vice president of governmental affairs for the association, based in Bethesda, Md. "The use of computers is likely to increase dramatically over the next several years.

"While these computers provide both safety, entertainment, and drivability benefits for car owners, it also provides the opportunity for car companies to lock in maintenance and service business for their new car dealers," he said. "Currently 70 to 75 percent of car owners use independent shops once their new car warranty has expired."