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By Sean Crimmins
As an ASE Certified automotive technician since 1998, I have noticed certain trends in automotive and truck technologies that I fear may cause calamities for future generations. These concerns are not political in any nature whatsoever; they are simply issues that may greatly impact the general public when it comes to vehicle ownership, the right to repair, and financial hardship.
1. Overly Complicated Technologies
There are many integrated systems in the modern automobile. These systems are run by electronic “modules” which are basically computers that govern different circuitries within the automobile. Some examples are the PCM (Powertrain Control Module), BCM (Body Control Module), SRS (Supplementary Restraint System, for the airbags), as well as numerous other proprietary modules, depending on the make and model of the vehicle.
One issue that arises is that a defect in a module can affect the entire operation of the vehicle, including unrelated circuits, because they all communicate via a controlled network with a type of binary code. For example, I had a customer who had changed a headlamp bulb and did not plug it in all the way. The arcing of the headlamp was detected by the BCM, which then caused the PCM to operate the engine under a “limp mode” and even caused a dangerous situation where the engine stopped running. In short, because a headlamp was faulty it caused the engine to turn off.
2. Proprietary Means are Necessary to Make Repairs
Software tools needed to repair modern vehicles are becoming more proprietary, which makes it almost impossible for most independent repair businesses to conduct their work.
As an example, some simple replacement parts such as a window switch or Body Control Module require “dealership only” proprietary software tools in order to program the components to operate as designed. The John Deere Co. is currently facing class-action lawsuits for prohibiting access to such software tools required to make such repairs on late-model tractors.
These software barriers create corporate monopolies on repairs, and appear to take aim directly at independent repair shops and the owners of the equipment.
3. Parts Availability and Sub-Par Aftermarket Alternatives
Many vehicle manufacturers stop producing parts for their vehicles after 10 years. Many also make reproduction key-making services unavailable after 10 years. This means, when working on a vehicle of that age, the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) parts and even keys for the vehicle may no longer be obtainable.
Most independent repair shops nevertheless prefer to install aftermarket production parts as the purchase prices are less expensive; however, this is an industry that appears to be becoming increasingly unreliable. As a technician, I find that as much as 25 percent of all aftermarket parts are either defective or require modification in order to work.
In one particular instance, the OEM part required for a repair was no longer available, and I needed to order a part seven times, all from different top-end aftermarket manufacturers, before I received a part that wasn’t defective. Sometimes neither aftermarket nor OEM parts are available, which forces the technician to seek out salvage replacement used parts for vehicles as little as ten years old.
4. Non-Technician-Friendly Vehicle Manufacturing Practices
Many late model vehicles are manufactured in a way that makes it impossible for the average mechanically inclined owner to conduct repairs.
Examples of such are found in the lack of access provided to repair superficial engine oil leaks such as from a timing cover or cam carrier seal.
During manufacturing, ease of engine installation in the vehicle chassis is achieved by installing the engine in a “cradle” that is bolted to the bottom of the motor. In order to conduct some basic superficial oil seal repairs, the entire engine needs to be lowered from the bottom of the vehicle.
Most owners, even those mechanically inclined, do not have access to the equipment needed to raise a vehicle some 6 feet off the ground in order to conduct repairs that otherwise should be accessible.
5. Non-Warrantied Necessary Repair Costs Make Used Vehicle Ownership Impossible
Many late model trucks employ a “cab forward” design that allows luxurious cab spacing for the occupants; however, it also creates extremely limited access to engine components. Some engine repairs for these trucks recommend a “cab off” repair procedure that requires the entire body of the truck to be removed from the frame of the vehicle. Owners may find themselves in situations where, in order to repair components to the motor, they may face a bill in the tens of thousands of dollars.
For the average owner, once the vehicle is no longer covered under warranty, such expense can impose great financial hardship, and just the threat of needing such repairs can render the vehicle so much a potential liability that it is no longer practical to own.
6. Future Industry Technologies and Their Induced Handicap to Independent Repair Shops
Vehicles are becoming more technically advanced and manufacturers are attempting to create an environment of greater connectivity between the vehicle and the driver. The greater the sophistication of these critical components, however, the greater the expense that must be paid by the owner to remedy problems.
For example, there are proposals that may require all new vehicles to employ a type of passive blood alcohol testing apparatus that must be engaged by the potential driver before the vehicle can be started. This may be achieved by touch-sensitive steering wheels, touch-sensitive push start buttons or air sampling equipment within the cabin.
Regardless of how the manufacturer wants to achieve this, one can speculate that repairing such systems 10 years after the manufacturing date may be extremely difficult or impossible for independent repair shops.
There are also proposals for “drive by wire” steering systems in which there is no direct mechanical link between the steering wheel and the steering rack that physically turns the wheels. This lack of direct mechanical linkage allows manufacturers greater architectural freedom when designing the interior of the vehicle and it also allows for a more occupant-friendly environment that includes greater room, lack of road vibration from the steering linkage and a more streamlined computer/driver interface for self-driving autonomous technologies.
With every step in more sophisticated technology, however, one can again speculate from the current trends that, in order to repair these systems, proprietary software tools will be needed that may be unavailable or inaccessible to independent repair shops.
To summarize these observations, as an ASE Certified automotive technician I am concerned that these future technologies and manufacturing practices may push many independent shops out of the industry.
Our modern society is dependent on passenger travel with automobiles; it is the cornerstone and fabric of our existence. These new technologies are of concern because the manufacturing trend appears to keep consumers in a state of financing a new vehicle without any exclusive right to repair or real ownership.
Without this right to repair, and with access to needed automotive software repair technologies limited for independent repair shops, the vehicle life cycle, from creation to landfill, becomes even shorter.
No matter how we look at it, resources are finite. Not only are these trends wasteful in resources, but these apparent corporate monopolies appear to infringe upon the liberties and freedoms of consumers and independent repair shops alike.
In 2001 the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act was introduced to the United States Congress but, while adopted by the Massachusetts legislature in 2012, it has never passed on the Federal level.

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