Technological Advances Add Up for Auto Shops

(The Record/MCT) -

Changing technology might make car owners’ driving experiences easier, but some auto-repair shop owners’ expenses have increased as quickly as they adapt the new equipment to their business.

The days of lifting the hood of an ailing vehicle and snooping for a problem are gone. Now, auto-repair shops are outfitted with scanners that diagnose problems in car engines, and they must buy expensive equipment to repair vehicles.

“We have to stay on top on what is changing,” said Randy Harris, manager at J&J Auto Maintenance in Waldwick, N.J. “You either keep up or get left behind, but it costs you to keep up.”

Repairs that used to be routine have become a full-blown computer exercise, Harris said. Cars that enter the market today use computer technology for anti-locking brakes, air bags, air conditioning, monitoring engine emissions and all of the entertainment or navigating systems found in modern vehicles.

In fact, according to the Institute of Physics, a charity-based physics research institute in London, almost every modern family car has more computing power than the system that guided the Apollo spacecraft to the moon in 1969.

Auto-repair store owners said increased competition from other independent auto repair shops and specialized stores that focus on one brand of vehicle have sliced margins for them, making any technology-related expense even more important to consider.

Tom Mosca, the owner of Maple Auto Repair in Fair Lawn, N.J., said the best example of his shop’s increased use of technology is the SnapOn OBD2 scanner, or an on-board diagnostic scanner, which he uses on most of the cars that come into his shop.

When the “check engine” light illuminates in a car, Mosca said, the OBD2 – which he purchased for $8,000 – can be plugged into the engine and will diagnose the area of concern by providing a specific code.

The codes, however, are constantly updated by manufacturers, Mosca said, and the manufacturers charge the auto-repair shops for access to the new codes. Mosca said the last update to his OBD2 cost Maple Auto Repair $1,300, and he updates it every other year.

“I won’t see that many 2014 cars come into the shop until next year, when the customer’s warranty ends, so I update it every other year,” Mosca said. “It’s just more cost-effective that way.”

J&J Auto Maintenance owner Nancy Luce said she sends her employees to I-Car collision repair classes online and to vocational schools to learn about the changing car technology.

“Classes can run anywhere from $200 to $700, depending on the kind of class,” Luce said. “It’s a big investment.”

Wayne (N.J.) Auto Clinic owner Ayad Shuaib said the changing technology was at the forefront of his mind when he opened his store four years ago. Shuaib said he initially spent $100,000 to lease different equipment that uses technology to help him not only diagnose cars but fix problems.

But despite the ability to spot problems in a vehicle more quickly, Shuaib said the human element of auto repair is imperative to the business as a whole.

“Computers can guide us where to look, but you still have to rely on the human brain and the professional experience of the mechanics to find where the roots of the problems are,” Shuaib said. “Unless a computer has learned every trick in the book, the human element and knowledge in auto repair – which is truly a science – has to apply.”