Portland auto repair shops debate need for new law

Portland auto repair shops debate need for new law

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

by Liz Vernon

Terry Irwin, owner of Aloha Auto Center, can usually help his customers get their vehicles fixed and back on the road. If he needs specific manufacturer information, he can rely on his subscription to an online database.

But sometimes problems arise. Irwin recalls two instances — one with a Ford, another with a Jeep — where he had to send the vehicles to dealerships after making repairs. "The computers had gone bad, so we put new computers in, but then the car wouldn't run," he says. "The computers had to be reprogrammed."

That's something only dealerships can do.

While many local mechanics say they can fix most problems, some still run into issues that require specialized tools and information only dealerships have. Proposed federal legislation aims to change that and require automakers to share access to repair information and tools with consumers and independent mechanics alike.

The effort is called "Right to Repair," and mechanics disagree on whether it's needed.

Charles Letherwood, director of marketing at highly rated Tom Dwyer Automotive Service Inc., says his company likes the idea of the legislation. "Car companies have promised to make all information available, according to the legislation - they know we need the information," he says. "We love the car companies, but that doesn't mean we want to rely on their word for us to stay in business."

Greg Remensperger, executive vice president for the Oregon Automobile Dealers Association, which along with automakers opposes the legislation, says independents can get most of the same information as dealers.

However, the computers are an exception. "The little black boxes — the computers that control the inner workings of the vehicle — are always held as [proprietary] information," Remensperger says.

Jim Houser of Hawthorne Auto Clinic spends thousands of dollars each year on program subscriptions for the 14 scan tools his technicians use to diagnose vehicles. That's what he says it takes to stay on top of technology changes. He's also a member of the National Automotive Service Task Force, which, since 2000, has been trying to do the same thing as Right to Repair, but without a law.

"While I'm not dedicated to Right to Repair, that seems to be the best way to get some negotiations going," he says. "There needs to be something to get people to the table to discuss how we can solve customers' problems and keep people on the road, keep customers happy and keep independent shops going."


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Photo courtesy of the Automotive Career Development Center Craig Van Batenburg, owner of the Automotive Career Development Center, explains how to assemble a 2001 Prius high-voltage battery pack.
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Several Boston 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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