ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) -- At least a couple of times a week,
mechanic Ernie Pride tells customers at his independent repair shop
he can't fix their cars because he doesn't know what's wrong with
them. Go to the dealer, he advises.
He has the experience and knowledge to service vehicles but
lacks the closely guarded information needed to diagnose problems
with today's high-tech cars.
Automakers refuse to make much of it available to
independent shops that compete with higher-priced dealerships. The
practice is raising hackles in Congress and a vigorous defense by
Figuring out what's wrong with an automobile is no longer as
simple as poking around under the hood and examining parts.
Computers control many modern vehicle systems, including the engine,
the air bags and the antilock brakes. Mechanics now diagnose
problems by connecting a handheld computer to the vehicle.
The computer gives the mechanic a code of numbers or letters
that designate the source of a problem. Without the reference
material to interpret the code, a mechanic can't fix the car.
"We just say, `We're sorry. You've got one option -- go to
the dealer,'" said Pride, manager of The Car Store outside
All repair shops must get some emission system codes because
of the Clean Air Act.
Some members of Congress worry that higher-priced dealer
repair shops are using the codes to corner the repair market.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation to require manufacturers to
share diagnostic codes with car owners and independent repair shops.
Also, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing a
plan to require that automakers publish online all the codes related
to emission repairs.
Cars built since the 1996 model year must have
computer-controlled emission systems to meet clean air laws.
"Most vehicles out of warranty are serviced by independent
repair shops," EPA spokesman David Ryan. "And the sooner these shops
catch emission problems, the better it is for the environment."
A membership survey by the Automotive Service Association,
which represents 15,000 independent repair shop owners, found that
10 percent of cars could not be repaired because codes are not
available. The number is expected to grow as newer cars replace
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says that requiring
the codes' disclosure would make proprietary information available
to competitors and subject to copying.
The group supports the EPA's proposal, and most of its
members have signed a letter of intent to make emissions diagnostic
tools for 1996 and newer cars available to independent shops by Jan.
"It's in our interest to make sure" emissions systems are
fixed quickly, alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said.
Automobile dealers made a record $80 billion on service and
parts in 2001, an 8.5 percent increase over 2000. Dealer labor rates
tend to run from $10 to $20 per hour higher than independent shops,
according to AAA.
Dealers contend it is appropriate that they have access to
sensitive information while independent garages do not.
"Dealerships have a franchise relationship with the
manufacturer, and the manufacturer can terminate that relationship,"
said Doug Greenhaus, director of environment, health and safety for
the National Auto Dealers Association. "They are under contract to
keep that information confidential, but there is no relationship
like that with the vehicle manufacturer and the aftermarket."
The emissions repair codes are linked to anti-theft devices,
which is causing the insurance industry to oppose the EPA proposal.
Getting the codes to more repair shops could make it easier for auto
thieves to obtain that information, insurers say.
"If you are a thief, the first thing you want to do is to
get a one-week apprenticeship at Joe's Garage," said Kim Hazelbaker
of the industry-funded Highway Loss Data Institute.
Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs for the
Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, says a potential thief
also could find work at a dealership.
"We don't think their problems are real, and we think they
all can be resolved," Lowe said. "It will be a lot better for repair
shops and technicians to more efficiently repair cars, and that will
ultimately benefit the consumer."
EPA officials say they hope to resolve the insurance
industry's misgivings about the proposal.
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