Chicago auto repair shops seek equal access to information

by Mason King

Syed Rizvi prefers to patronize independent auto mechanics. So he bristled when A-rated Joe's Expert Auto in Chicago referred him elsewhere for a headlight-switch programming glitch on his BMW X5.

The shop lacked the appropriate BMW programming tool, so owner Joe Betancourt sent Rizvi to a dealer.

"I was definitely disappointed," Rizvi says. "I was like, 'Hey, I took it here [to Joe's]. Why can't this job be completed here?'"

Betancourt says he loses as much as 5 percent of his business to dealers every year over technology issues like this one. He supports proposed federal legislation known as "Right to Repair" that would force automakers to provide equal access to high-tech information and tools necessary for repairs. After rejecting earlier versions, Congress is expected to give the bill another look this year.

Today's cars rely on complex computer systems to run everything from the engine to the airbags. Access to specs for these systems - and the equipment and software needed to diagnose and reprogram them - is vital for most fixes.

The question is whether federal action is necessary. Betancourt and another Chicago-area independent mechanic contacted by Angie's List support the legislation, while three others say they already get most of the technical information they need.

"There is a lot of information out there," said Greg Waite, co-owner of highly rated Naper Auto Works in Naperville. "I'm a little befuddled about the purpose of the legislation."

Dealers are required to guard data about antitheft systems, says Paul Seiden, service manager for A-rated Schaumburg Honda Automobiles. Some independents complain they have trouble getting info on the newest cars, but Seiden says such cars are usually covered under warranty anyway.

Carmakers' diagnostic tools typically are available to independents but often too expensive for small shops, says David Becker, owner of A-rated Wheeling Auto Center in Arlington Heights.

In the case of Rizvi's headlight switch, Betancourt says a Right to Repair law would force BMW to release specs for the tool, so aftermarket parts makers could create a more affordable version. It makes sense to Rizvi: "There should be some kind of opportunity for [qualified independents] to handle all kinds of business."

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Photo courtesy of Hawthorne Auto Clinic Shayla Spiva, a student intern at Hawthorne Auto Clinic, uses scanning equipment to check a 2008 Toyota Prius.
Photo courtesy of Hawthorne Auto Clinic Shayla Spiva, a student intern at Hawthorne Auto Clinic, uses scanning equipment to check a 2008 Toyota Prius.

Several Portland mechanics say a federal law could help them win access to repair information. Other automotive shops say a law is not needed.

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