Anyone who has visited a casino is aware that no matter what game is being played, the odds are always in favor of the house. Despite any player’s best moves, casino rules give an inherent advantage to the dealer. Since most of us are not professional gamblers, we accept these long odds as the price to be paid for a little entertainment and a chance at winning big.
In the world of vehicle repair, independent shops also are competing at a disadvantage. In this case, the odds are stacked not in favor of a blackjack dealer, but rather a new car dealer. Franchised new car dealerships have ready access to proprietary technical information, equipment and capabilities that are not available to the aftermarket. However, unlike casino games, fixing cars is much more important than a bit of entertainment; it is the lifeblood for many thousands of people, and affects millions of drivers.
No independent shop is immune. Can you remember a time when you fixed a transmission perfectly, but were forced to send the car to the dealer to be reflashed? How many times has a diagnostic problem left you wishing you had access to an OE scan tool? And how often has a job stalled because you couldn’t find enough information about the system you were trying to repair?
Inability to complete a repair due to these types of shortfalls can seriously erode a customer’s confidence in your operation. Letting that customer slip out the door for one repair may be the last time you ever see them. Being compelled to give the dealer this toe hold on your hard-won customer is a perfect example of the advantage dealers hold over independent shops.
Many shops faced with this dilemma will take the vehicle to the dealer for the customer, which is convenient for the customer and helps prevent them from wandering into the wilderness. But it eats valuable time and cuts shop margin on a job that could otherwise have been profitable had they been able to complete diagnosis and repairs in-house.
Leveling the Field
Fortunately for the industry and the customers we serve, the Right to Repair Act (H. 3757) was passed in Massachusetts in late 2013. This law takes effect when new car models come out in Summer/Fall of 2017. It obligates vehicle manufacturers to supply the same information and equipment to the aftermarket as they do to their dealer principals. They must provide diagnostic and reprogramming capability for all systems — not just emission control systems — all the way back to 2002 model year. Further, they must provide it under a platform that can be accessed over the internet with a laptop or PC and a common J-2534 pass-through device.
This means your shop will be able to:
- Reflash all control modules
- Use the same fully-functional, bi-directional diagnostic/scan tool platforms that dealers use
- Gain access to OE bulletins, wiring diagrams and other necessary technical info at the same time they become available to dealers (not years later, as is the current paradigm)
- Access and complete the same technical training courses available to dealer technicians
- Send maintenance reminders through the vehicle's telematics system (with customer approval)
There is no need to buy different scan tools for each vehicle make. Instead, you’ll use the same laptop and pass-through device to log into each manufacturer’s designated website. This means that for the cost of those two items, coupled with a reasonable subscription fee to the manufacturer’s site, you will effectively have dealer-level scan tool capabilities for all passenger vehicles sold in the United States from 2002 model year forward. Subscriptions to OEM websites are available on a day/week/month/year basis.
But We Don’t Live in Massachusetts…
No worries. Under the law, the manufacturers were given four years to enact these changes, partially because the diagnostic platforms were a tall order to organize and that time was necessary to engineer fully-functioning systems. A monumental task such as this put pressure on manufacturers to go wider, and that is exactly what they did. In early 2014, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association for Global Automakers were among those who signed on to a “memorandum of understanding” that commits them to meet the requirements of the Massachusetts law in all 50 states. Some manufacturers are already ahead of the program. For example, BMW and Toyota are two OEMs that saw the writing on the wall and have been offering dealer-level capabilities for the last few years.
Since these new OE platforms will work based on the current J-2534 protocol, you may already be familiar with some of the limited reflashing capabilities that J-2534 provides. There is a wealth of information printed in technical publications such as Transmission Digest over the years about the learning curve associated with using a pass-through device. Many seasoned technicians that don’t have a ton of experience with computers are understandably intimidated by the prospect of acquiring new computer skills. Specifics of use are a bit outside the scope of this article, but when it comes to taking advantage of these platforms, you’ve got three basic options:
- 1. Take a computer skills course and participate in a J-2534 seminar.
In reality, this will be easier to learn than many of the complex concepts you’ve come to master over many years in this business. Once your competency level is established, you’ll be able to offer dealer-level services to other local shops that are slower to take advantage of the new rules, making you a kind of de facto dealer.
2. Hire more millenials.
This age group is more familiar and comfortable with computers than any other generation. While some of us old-schoolers may still be hesitant to dip our toes into the water, most millenials were born in the techno-pool and can swim laps around us. Give them the training and equipment, then stand back and watch them dive right in; they will bring you back untold treasures from the deep.
3. Seek out a mobile diagnostician.
Some shops will be reticent to embark on any computer-based learning curve. Rest assured, a new generation of mobile diagnostic and reflashing specialists will crop up as a result of the Right to Repair law. Calling in one of these specialists when necessary is a shrewd move that will help keep customers in your stable.
Let it Ride
The good people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have successfully banded together in the struggle to eliminate dealer supremacy. As an industry, what are we going to do with the tremendous gift they dropped into our lap? Smart money says it's time to double down and cash in on the great new opportunities Right to Repair promises to aftermarket service providers.
Brian Wing is a Sonnax product development manager for driveline and transmission components. He is a member of the Sonnax TASC Force (Technical Automotive Specialties Committee), a group of recognized industry technical specialists, transmission rebuilders and Sonnax Industries Inc. technicians.