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Indianapolis auto repair shops debate need for law

Backers of a proposed federal bill say people should be able to rely on an independent mechanic, not just dealer services. (Photo courtesy of Jason Veltz)

Backers of a proposed federal bill say people should be able to rely on an independent mechanic, not just dealer services. (Photo courtesy of Jason Veltz)

When Duke Gold's Speedway closed last November following the owner's death, Indianapolis customers William Sadlier and Shannon Inman were left with limited options. Both used the dealer's service department for years - Sadlier for his 2001 Subaru Outback, Inman for her 2006 Volkswagen Jetta - because it offered factory-authorized service at a convenient central Indianapolis location.

Now only two Subaru and two Volkswagen dealerships remain in Indianapolis, each with a North- and Southside location, and both customers face the choice of driving farther for dealer service or finding an independent mechanic.

Backers of a proposed federal Right to Repair bill say people like Sadlier and Inman should be able to rely on an independent mechanic. But, they say, automakers limit access to information and equipment, preventing independent mechanics from repairing every aspect of newer vehicles. The act has been introduced in every Congress since at least 2002, and backers say the depressed economy will improve its chances this year.

For Inman, Duke Gold's Volkswagen-specific technical information was a key advantage over independent shops. "I think they had more technical knowledge - VWs aren't the easiest to service," she says. For Sadlier, the key to finding a new shop is convenience and information. "As long as they're not too far away, I'd use an independent who had the same technical information," he says.

Don Malless, owner of highly rated Malless Auto Service in Indianapolis, says he's "absolutely for" a federal law forcing automakers to share information. With more cars using computerized components, Malless says reprogramming a car's computer is a common task for any skilled mechanic. But when he can't access the right information, or lacks the equipment to diagnose an error, he's forced to turn customers away. "The consumer has to take their vehicle to a dealership," he says.

But some independent mechanics don't want the federal government in their garages. Bob Waeiss, owner of highly rated Integrity Automotive in Carmel, contends that the information he needs is already available.

Some independents also say they lack access to affordable manufacturer-specific diagnostic equipment. Gloria Heath, co-owner of highly rated Euro Motorworks in Indianapolis, says being an independent that specializes in Mercedes, BMWs, Porsches and Volvos comes at a high price. She recently paid $25,000 for a BMW diagnostic computer. "Manufacturers make the equipment available, but it's cost-prohibitive for the average shop to tool up," Heath says.

All three independent mechanics say they turn away customers for lack of the right information or equipment.

Marty Murphy, executive vice president for the Automobile Dealers Association of Indiana, says dealers are entitled to the training, information and discounted equipment they receive. "I see the disadvantage of someone else not being able to do that," Murphy says, "But it's part of the franchise privilege dealers pay for."


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