By Earle Eldridge
A simple car wash turned into a nightmare for Matt Olson of Port
High-pressure water got under the hood of his 1993 BMW 318is,
ruining the computer that controls the engine.
The car was towed to Circle & Square Global Car Service,
where owner Reto Filli installed another computer. But Filli couldnt program the new
computer to run the engine. He had to send it to a BMW dealer for that.
Problem is, the nearest BMW dealer to Port Hadlock, on a remote
peninsula, is in Seattle, a ferry boat ride and another 60 miles away. Getting the car to
Seattle and back added $200 to the $100 the dealer charged to program the computer. The
total bill was $2,900.
Customers choose us to do the work because its way too much
hassle to go to Seattle, Filli says. But BMW and Mercedes have gotten to the
point where their cars are so technical, I have to turn customers away.
Programming engine-control computers is a complicated
task that BMW prefers to have its dealers handle, says spokeswoman Martha
McKinley, who also says BMW will pick up the $200 transportation charge
for Olsons car.
The question of who ought to be able to repair todays
high-tech cars the average vehicle has 15 computers managing
everything from engine, brakes and shocks to the radio has exacerbated
the already-tense relationship between automakers and their dealers
on one side and independent repair shops on the other.
Caught in the middle are U.S. car owners who
spend close to $38 billion annually on automotive repairs, according
to the Commerce Department. Being driven to a dealership for service
over an independent can be costly. Dealer labor rates tend to run from
$10 to $20 per hour higher than independent shops, according to AAA.
The standard dealer markup on parts from the manufacturer is 30%, according
to J.D. Power and Associates, a research and marketing firm.
That means a major repair can wind up costing hundreds of dollars more
at a dealership than the garage down the street. For example, asked to estimate the cost
of replacing the transmission in a 1997 Ford Taurus, a Chicago-area Ford dealer gave an
estimate of $2,200-$2,500. A Chicago-area independent repair shop gave an estimate of
Manufacturers say their dealers are best equipped to handle
todays technology-driven repairs. Independent repair shops argue that they can do
the work just fine if they can get the latest diagnostic tools and computer information at
a reasonable cost.
Now Congress has gotten involved. In early August, five members
introduced The Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act, which would require
automakers to provide all vehicle repair information to independent shops. Automakers
oppose the bill.
Manufacturers admit that purchasing the diagnostic tools and getting
all the repair updates is expensive. McKinley says that independent shops can get the
information. Filli would have needed to program the BMW. But it costs $12,000, and
thats too much for a lot of small shops.
We do make it available, but they would likely have to have
enough BMW business to warrant that kind of expense, McKinley says.
Automakers also admit that they prefer to have their dealers do the
work. We want to maintain our customers in our dealerships as much as
possible, says Tony Fujita, vice president of customer service of Lexus. We
firmly believe that we can do the very best job.
If a part fails, it is likely to require someone with more
training. An independent shop or technician may not be able to handle it because of the
electronics involved, says Fred Heiler, a Mercedes-Benz spokesman.
Dealers argue that they handle warranty repair work
for the manufacturers and safety recalls from the government. They say
they can link directly to the factory for advice and that they are required
by the automakers to provide ongoing training for their service technicians.
Ken Roberts, a spokesman for the Automotive Service Association,
which represents independent repair shops, says the independents have to do good work
because they relay on repeat business and word of mouth that you are repairing cars
correctly, and you are diagnosing correctly.
Roberts also says manufacturers should encourage independents to fix
cars. There are more cars on the road than dealerships can service, he says.
The number of registered vehicles in the USA climbed to 205 million in
2000 from 130 million in 1980, according to R.L. Polk. Over the same time period, the
number of dealerships fell to 22,150 from 27,900, according to the National Automobile
Follow the money
For dealers, selling service and parts is
often more profitable than selling new cars. In 2000, about 53% of dealership profits came
from service and parts sales, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Last year, dealers sold a record $73 billion in service and parts, a 9% increase from
Two issues fueling the feud:
In some cases, an automaker will ask a
supplier to build a certain number of a part for production and just enough extras for
dealers but not the aftermarket.
Automakers say they do that when the dealer
is best trained to properly install the part. But that means dealers,
faced with less competition, can price the part almost anywhere they
Ed Cushman of C&H Foreign Auto Repair in Spokane, Wash.,
specializes in Volvo repairs and has to get parts from dealers.
Cushman says that when it comes to Volvo parts, the local dealer,
Camp Imports, doesnt follow the usual practice of selling parts to repair shops at
wholesale prices, about 20% below retail. Camp does sell parts for Chevrolets, BMWs and
Subarus at wholesale.
Its frustrating, Cushman says.
If they have a part that we need, well buy it, even though
we have to pay a high price. But he gets most of his Volvo parts
from a dealership in Seattle, 350 miles away.
Ralph Plaster, parts manager at Camp Imports, says the dealership
averages only two Volvo repairs a month, so it doesnt stock a lot of parts. He says
with such little work, its not worth the hassle of selling wholesale. I
dont stock the inventory, Plaster says. I dont have the return
capability. It is not profitable.
Some technology is only available from the dealer, too. And it
may not be for major items, such as Olsons engine computer.
Need a new car key? A visit to your local hardware store probably
isnt going to get it done. Daniel Scott of Huntsville, Ala., was given just one key
when he bought a used 2001 Mitsubishi Galant. He could get a duplicate only from the
dealer. And although the dealer didnt charge Scott for a second key, he was told the
cost would have been $20 for the key and $60 to program the anti-theft chip to work with
his car. Anti-theft keys for luxury cars can cost more than $200 to replace.
Automakers argue that some technology, mainly the computer
systems that keep engines running smoothly, is proprietary and shouldnt be released
for competitive reasons. Automakers spend millions of dollars developing this
technology, says Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile
Manufacturers, a Washington-based lobbying group.
About 60,000 additional automotive
technicians are needed in the next 5 years, according to industry experts. And working on
complex vehicles requires more skills, which limits the pool of qualified candidates,
forcing dealers and independent shops to compete for good technicians.
The best prospects should be comfortable with computers,
understand electronics and know the basics of how a car works. But the best-suited
candidate is likely to seek something more glamorous and less grimy in the computer
technology field. And older mechanics may not warm up to computer technology. The ASA says
one technician enters the job market for every 10 who leave.
Our biggest problem is finding trained
technicians, says dealer Robert Maguire, chairman of the National
Automobile Dealers Association. Young people who can work with
both their mind and hands are in high demand in the computer industry
and other jobs.
To counter the problem, General
Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Subaru, Volkswagen and Audi have joined with
dealers to fund Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES). The partnership works with
state education departments to attract and train high school students for jobs as service
More than 3,000 technicians have gone through the program, which
is now in 40 states and expects to be in all 50 by the end of 2002, says Don Gray,
president of AYES. In a few states, independent repair shops sponsor the students, but
most go to dealerships.
The independents are pinning their hopes for help in competing
with dealers in Congress.
Currently, automakers are required to share only information
about emissions systems with independent repair shops. Thats the result of a law
that required automakers, beginning in 1994, to install computer systems in vehicles to
One of the bills sponsors says that law gave automakers an
opening to not share other information.
This law had the unintended consequence of making the
vehicle manufacturer the gatekeeper on who can repair, or produce, replacement parts for
the vehicle, says Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, one of the sponsors of the Right to
This bill will preserve a vehicle owners freedom to
choose where, how and by whom to repair their vehicles, as well as their choice in car
parts, he says.
Bergquist says the bill would force automakers to turn over
proprietary information. We oppose any legislation that would force automakers to do
that. We have to find some way for providing some of the information short of giving it
away, she says.
Barton is chairman of a subcommittee that will consider the bill,
giving it a chance of at least getting out of committee. But the auto industry, with a
well-honed lobbying apparatus, is a formidable force in Washington.
By Tim Dillon, USA TODAY
look: Jeff McArthur, an automotive technician with Fitzgerald Dodge in Rockville, Md.,
checks an Intrepids engine.
|Calls rack up range
USA TODAY called dealerships,
independent dealers and aftermarket service franchise chains in three parts of the country
to get estimates for repairs on three popular car models.
Replace brake rotors
1998 Toyota Camry in Los Angeles area
Mike Miller Toyota, $101.35 per rotor.
General Auto Repair, Hollywood, Calif., $65 per rotor.
Midas, Los Angeles, $83.95 per rotor.
1997 Ford Taurus in Chicago area
Al Piemonte Ford Sales, Melrose Park, Ill.
Automotive Tech Center, Oak Park, Ill.
Aamco Transmissions, Oak Park, Ill.
60,000-mile scheduled maintenance
1997 Honda Accord in Miami area
Maroone Hollywood Honda, Hollywood, Fla.
Total Cost: $229.95 (4 cylinder), $299.94 (6 cylinder).
Includes: Replace oil and oil filter, replace air cleaner, replace spark plugs, rotate
tires, replace transmission fluid.
B&J Auto Repair, Miami
Replace oil and oil filter, $25.
Replace air cleaner, $10-$15.
Replace spark plugs, $2-$2.75; $5-$6 for platinum.
Rotate tires, $10.
Replace transmission fluid, $40.
These items total between $87 and $96
Firestone Tire & Service Center, Miami
Replace oil and oil filter, $12.99.
Replace air cleaner, $25.
Replace transmission fluid, $69.
These items total $106.99.
No need to replace spark plugs until 100,000 miles.
Need to see car to determine if tires should be rotated.
Source: Research by Darryl Haralson, USA TODAY