Boston com


Boston Globe
 April 8, 2004

When Auto Repairs Do Not Compute

Some mechanics say firms stingy with data needed to fix cars

How many car mechanics does it take to repair a dome light? Just one -- if he has the right kind of computer. But if he doesn't, you're in trouble.

Peter Kane of New Bedford learned this the hard way when the dome light in his 1998 Ford Taurus continued to glow for 20 minutes after he closed his car door. Figuring it was a trivial repair, Kane headed to Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales & Service Inc., a repair shop and used car dealer. To Kane's surprise, mechanic Mark Giammalvo told him he would have to go to a Ford dealership. Giammalvo's diagnostic computer system could not detect the cause of the problem.

"He says, 'My computer won't talk to the car,' " Kane said. " 'It won't let me in.' "

Cars are riddled with microprocessors that control engines, transmissions, brakes -- even dome lights. Cars long ago became so complicated that few consumers can do their own repairs. But many trained mechanics say they're in the same boat, because automakers have not provided them with the information they need to communicate with the car's digital systems. Independent repair shops are forced to send customers -- and dollars -- down the road, to new-car dealerships with the computer gear that's needed. "This happens all the time," Giammalvo said.

He and other independent mechanics want relief from Congress, in the form of the Right to Repair Act, a bill that would force automakers to provide all of the computer information needed to diagnose and repair any problem. But automakers say there's no need for such a law. They say they have already agreed voluntarily to provide all diagnostic information, and are well on their way to total openness.

"Today, you can take your car to any independent repair shop," said Mark Saxonberg, service technology manager at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. "They can get any information that they need to fix the car at a reasonable cost."

Some independent repair shop owners agree. "Ninety-five percent or more of all service information is affordably available," said David Lanspeary, owner of Dave's Auto Repair in Youngtown, Ariz. "The problem I see is more lack of training and lack of investment by the shop owners."

Bill Cahill, owner of BC Auto Repair in Randolph, agrees that automakers are sharing more information. "I will admit on the surface, they appear to be starting to comply," he said. But Cahill said he can't get complete technical information for many vehicles, and only a federal law will change that. "It will hold their feet to the fire," Cahill said.

Nearly all cars use digital sensors embedded in dozens of vehicle subsystems. These sensors can recognize malfunctions and flash a warning, like the notorious "check engine" light. A technician can then plug a testing device, called a "scan tool," into a data port on the vehicle. The scan tool should be able to receive a code that identifies the faulty part.

But there are dozens of carmakers using a variety of diagnostic codes and networking systems. An independent mechanic could be called upon to fix any of these cars. But that means stocking scan tools, software, and manuals for every make of vehicle -- potentially a ruinously expensive proposition.

A number of companies make generic scan tools designed to work with many different cars. But for years, these tools were limited by the automakers' refusal to release all of the information about their computer systems.

The US Environmental Protection Agency requires all carmakers to provide access to diagnostic information related to a car's pollution-control gear. Every car sold since 1996 has a standardized data interface that delivers this information, and a mechanic can perform emissions tests with a standard scan tool.

But car companies were not required to share data from other systems, so an independent mechanic might be unable to work on a car's brakes or heating system. Tired of being forced to turn away customers, independent car repair associations lobbied Congress for a law that would compel automakers to fully disclose their diagnostic information. The first Right to Repair Act was introduced in 2001. Before it could be enacted, the car companies struck a deal with the Automotive Service Association, which represents 12,000 car-repair firms. The manufacturers pledged that by August 2003, they would provide independent shops with the same data they provide to new car dealers, at a "reasonable" price.

Charlie Gorman, executive manager of the Equipment and Tool Institute, the trade association for makers of automotive scan tools, said the automakers have generally kept their word. "I think they've been pretty good about that," Gorman said. Indeed, he said that his association's members have not been able to keep up with all the data they have received from companies. "Right now we've got more information that we can absorb all at once," Gorman said.

That means that scan tool companies have not incorporated all of the new data into their devices.

This may explain why Mark Giammalvo couldn't fix Kane's Taurus dome light. Gorman said that Ford Motor Co. has generally been good about sharing data, but has dragged its feet about sharing a protocol it uses to detect problems with body parts, like the microswitch controlling the dome light. "They just gave us the information to build systems for that in June of last year," Gorman said. Thus, a mechanic with last year's scan tool would be unable to diagnose the problem.

Even when the diagnostic information is available, it comes at a price. New scan tools with the latest updates cost thousands of dollars. In some cases, the generic tools won't do; even if the carmaker has released the data, a scan tool maker might choose not to include it in his product. So mechanics must buy unique scan tools from the car manufacturers, tools they can only use on a single make.

"I own four different scan tools -- two generic and two manufacturer-specific," said Larry Zonenshine, owner of Mansfield Auto Care in Mansfield. Still, he said, it's not enough. "I have a 1998 Chrysler minivan with an air bag warning light on," Zonenshine said. "I cannot access that system." Actually, he can -- if he buys a Chrysler scan tool priced at about $6,000, he said.

Even when the scan tool works, the mechanics must pay for technical manuals and service bulletins. These manuals don't come cheaply, but as part of their 2002 settlement, the carmakers agreed to provide the information over the Internet. Repair shops can subscribe to these digital services by the year, month, or day. For instance, they can obtain access to all General Motors manuals for $1,200 a year, $150 a week, or $20 a day.

Auto industry officials say that between offering online access to their manuals and releasing computer codes, independent mechanics have little to complain about.

"It's not cheap and easy anymore," said Gregory Dana, vice president of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "But then it's not cheap and easy to make a car anymore."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

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