I rarely get crazy or sound a call to arms but I feel that everyone should be aware of some of the alarming trends that I am starting to see worm their way into my daily work -- trends that are starting to cost consumers big bucks for small items, trends that are causing me to turn away vehicles in need of repairs, sending them instead to dealers.
Over the 18 years that I have been working as a professional technician, there have been cars and trucks, both import and domestic, that fail the repairability test. Some of these vehicles are of the throw-away type, the kind that have one tire in the scrap yard before they leave the dealership. Others are orphaned, evil, poorly engineered or just plain bad. They fail the repairability test from lack of available parts, cost factors, or lack of repair and diagnostic information.
It's the latter that is becoming increasingly frequent and costly not only to independent repair shops but to consumers as well.
Some car companies feel that it is in their best interest to treat repair information like national secrets. There is a term once called "engineered obsolescence." Basically what it means is that once the headlamp on your driver's side blows out, it's a good idea to replace the one on the passenger side because it most likely will go out seen. But what if the headlamps were not available or they required a special tool that cost hundreds or thousands in order to replace the bulb?
Most of the motoring public understands that vehicles need maintenance, some more than others. No vehicle can go without service indefinitely, which brings me to my number one pet peeve.
As an automotive service tech my primary one resource is information. Without the appropriate information there is a good chance I cannot proceed with the repair. I spend hundreds of dollars every month to acquire the proper information so I can go to work. The cost of parts today precludes the "throw parts at it until it works method." In addition most systems are electronically driven and require a scanner or other software-based piece of hardware to communicate with the affected system.
Again without the tools or software or information there is very little I can do. I inform the customer and they end up getting on a long waiting list to see the dealer and hope that the problem gets fixed. In the past I would run across a vehicle that locked out non-dealer repair facilities once in a blue moon -- Peugeot, Saab, BMW, a few domestic vehicles.
It seems this year that problem is becoming more frequent across all brands, all makes and models, and as a result what should be a straightforward repair, say to get some heat working for the winter, turns into a $1300.00 owner's nightmare at the dealer.
Why? Because the manufacturer has not released the information on the heating system for this vehicle, a 1995 Pontiac Bonneville -- a bread-and-butter American driving machine. Because the manufacturer has not published any information whatsoever, the consumer is forced to go to the dealership for diagnosis and repair.
As a result the dealer can charge whatever it wants and take advantage of its monopoly, which as we all know leads to price gouging, poor service and angry consumers.
Take something more common, something everyone who has ever owned a car or truck has done: make an extra set of keys for safekeeping or for another driver. Take your old key down to the locksmith, hardware store or even the dealer. Chances are for under $5 you would have a working set of keys.
But today's vehicles being sold with "antitheft" systems are another story. I had a customer come in and ask me to make an extra set of keys while I did a tune-up. No problem, I said.
On the test drive I stopped by our local locksmith and asked him to make a set of keys. For the first time I looked at the keys and noticed a security pellet embedded in the key itself. My locksmith took one look at the key and said no can do, dealer only.
Later that afternoon as I was running errands I stopped in at the local dealer asked him to cut me the set. His eyes rolled back and he smiled, "You might want to let the customer how much these will cost -- about $100."
I said wow, take it easy, I just want the keys not the whole lock cylinder. I declined the offer and took the keys back to the customer, who quickly decided he could do without the spare set.
Now if something as simple as getting keys made has turned into a $100 extravaganza, just imagine how much it's going to cost to get other things fixed when the dealer has the "lock" on the information and the technology that makes your car work.
I can't wait to see the repair bills on some of these new hybrid vehicles that are going to save the planet. Something to think about when you go out to buy a new or newer used vehicle.
I could go on but one thing is certain. If consumers don't get legislation passed to protect them and don't become proactive about not getting stung for dealer-only repairs, I fear for the future of the automotive industry as well as the consumer.
No person should be forced or manipulated into taking their vehicle back to the dealer for repairs. There is supposed to be freedom of choice in today's economy that promotes competition and a fair marketplace. I fear for the day when half of my business is sent down to that big moneypit of dealer-only service and horror stories of $100 keys and $1,300 heater repairs are commonplace.
For now consumers are protected only by the Clean Air Act which forces OEMs to release engine performance-related information for emissions testing. Everything else from keys to brakes to heating and air-conditioning is not. Which could end up costing many drivers a lot more than they ever imagined.