Technological Challenges Loom for Auto Repair Shops

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Auto repair shops work on smarter cars, but with fewer tools and technology to fix them say Greulich's Automotive

Let’s figure out what the rules are – and let’s learn to win by the rules.

Automotive service technicians and mechanics around the country face an uphill battle in 2010, as proposed legislation over technological upgrades in auto manufacturing and its effect on car repairs is provoking a battle between car manufacturers and auto repair shops.

“What’s changed significantly in the last few years in how cars are built – technological advancements in automobile manufacturing means that car sections are now geometrically connected,” says Chris Greulich, who owns Greulich’s Automotive, a full-service multi location auto repair business based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “No longer are repairs on just the front, back and sides. Front end collisions, for example, can bring about damage to back end systems, purely because of the way cars are now being built.”

And that’s got Greulich and other auto repair industry leaders concerned about the changes in their businesses. As new vehicles continue to get more ever more advanced with multiple computers controlling everything from the brakes to the steering wheel, automakers hold the upper hand in determining eventual vehicle problems.

When auto mechanics need to repair a part, that usually requires reprogramming the computers — a difficult task without the software codes or diagrams of the vehicle's electrical wires. For instance, some of the newer hybrid vehicles are virtual computers on wheels. The Prius, for instance, has 14 computer systems in it.

And for mechanics, keeping up with technology is now mandatory to auto repair. And that means auto shops must continue to invest precious dollars to get the right tools and online manuals for each model.

Under discussion now in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Right to Repair Act would require automakers “to provide the same service information and tools to independent auto and maintenance shops, as well as to consumers, that the automaker dealership service centers receive.” The Right to Repair Act essentially would protect car owners and drivers by allowing them to completely own the repair information when they purchase their vehicles, new or used, so that they can choose where, how and by whom they have their vehicles repaired.

But automakers are opposed to such a measure, claiming it steals their intellectual property rights. But a consumer rights group called the Right to Repair Coalition asserts that “Most car owners would be surprised to learn that they are increasingly losing control over who can diagnose and service their car. By using computerized components in virtually every aspect of the car, auto manufacturers are systematically acquiring a far greater say in who repairs your car than you have.”

A new study conducted by John Dunham and Associates for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) and the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE) shows that consumers greatly benefit from a competitive vehicle repair marketplace. According to the study, independent auto repair shops save American consumers nearly $26 billion annually or $360 per family. The data is available not only by state, but by congressional district, and can be viewed at http://www.guerrillaeconomics.biz/righttorepair.

According to First Research, about 70 percent of industry revenue comes from mechanical repair and 30 percent from collision repair. Mechanical jobs include repairs to mufflers and exhausts, transmissions, brakes, and shock absorbers, or in so-called "underhood" systems (engines, electrical systems, radiators).

As the numbers of cars on the road continues to grow, the demand for expert auto repair is still high, which means job opportunities for skilled mechanics, but in a slowed down industry. Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that employment of automotive service technicians and mechanics is expected to increase by 5 percent between 2008 and 2018, slower than the average for all occupations. The Labor Department’s “2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook” notes “Continued growth in the number of vehicles in use in the United States will lead to new jobs for workers performing basic car maintenance and repair. More entry-level workers will be needed to perform these services, such as oil changes and replacing worn brakes.”

According to "Economic Impact of Franchised Businesses: Vol. 2" by PricewaterhouseCoopers, (March 2008), the automotive franchise industry, excluding dealers, generates around $25 billion in sales annually and employs over 175,000 people in 35,600 franchise establishments. The study also showed that the automotive industry contains more individual franchise companies than any other franchising segment except food.

And as independent auto repairs shops like Greulich Brothers Industries continues to grow slightly year on year, they face larger obstacles in the battle with automakers over technological advancements and customer choice. But Chris Greulich is hopeful that the legislation will bring about clarification to its industry challenges. “Let’s figure out what the rules are – and let’s learn to win by the rules.”

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Troy Bohlke
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