February 5, 2013

Long drive for car repair sparks call for legislation

An Aroostook County lawmaker models a bill after a controversial Massachusetts law.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Auto technician Bob Burns installs a new exhaust system on a car at 3G’s Tire & Auto Service in Portland. Burns said manufacturers are getting better at sharing information, but it’s still difficult for mechanics to acquire scan codes for many ignition and security systems.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Both sides have been arguing over the issue at the national level for years. Last July, they reached a compromise that was expected to serve as the basis for a national agreement. In the compromise, automakers won't have to develop a universal interface for several years.

However, before the Massachusetts Legislature passed the measure in the last day of the session that summer, a more stringent measure had already been placed on the state ballot. Its subsequent approval by voters in November resulted in two state laws now in conflict, Gage said.

"With two laws on the books, there is complete confusion in the industry," he said.

Gage said the dispute in Massachusetts will probably play out in the courts. He hopes the Maine Legislature will stay out of the fray and wait until the issue is resolved in Massachusetts before trying to enact a law of its own.

Gage said the root of the problem lies with the sophisticated computer systems in newer cars. Many repair shops struggle to keep up with the ever-changing technology. Mechanics use scanning tools to capture data from a car's on-board computer system and then transfer the data to computers, but manufacturers use different scanning tools. Inputs in the cars are not universal, which means that mechanics must buy special scanners to retrieve data from some models.

Repair shops have to buy an assortment of scanning devices and software, depending on the manufacturer, and must continually train employees on how to use them. That can be expensive, Gage said. Shops that try to save money by buying generic scanners sometimes find the scanners don't have all the functions as those produced by the automakers.

Dealers who focus on their investment in specific brands can provide better service for those brands, said Tom Brown, president of the Maine Auto Dealers Association. He added that dealers' service departments invest heavily to keep up with technology. Any repair shop can buy the same tools and software and get the same kind of training, but not everyone wants to make that investment, he said.

"Some folks are better able to do that than others, based on their business plan," he said.

But not all auto dealers oppose the legislation. Adam Arens, owner of Patriot Subaru in Saco, said he supports it.

"I absolutely believe in no restraint in trade," he said. "If we don't provide unique professional services, people should be free to go where they want."

Meanwhile, Michael Cowett, owner of Mike Cowett's Auto Body-Towing in Presque Isle, who worked on the Robertsons' Subaru last winter, said the auto industry is already making improvements. He now has the codes to reboot the computers on Subarus, and if the Robertsons came to his shop today, there would be no need to drive to the dealership in Bangor, he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:


This story was updated at 11:44 a.m. Tuesday, February 5, 2013 to correct the type of malfunction that prompted the Subaru's warning light and the cost of scanners.


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