Car Codes May Increase Costs

Today's cars are getting more and more complex to repair. Now, you not only have to know what's wrong, but you have to have the right computer code before you can even try to fix it. And AAA says that limits consumers' choices when it comes to choosing a mechanic.

Bobby Dunn is a mechanic with a dilemma. His car's anti-lock brake light is on. So he grabs his diagnostic computer, attaches it to the car, and it tells him nothing. His computer can't analyze the brakes. And so, Dunn says, "This would have to go back to the dealer." By the way, the car belongs to his son.

Why can't a mechanic fix his own son's car? Blame it on computers. They're everywhere these days, the engine, the brakes, the airbags, the transmission. But independent mechanics say the auto makers aren't giving them the repair codes for many of these new high tech parts, the codes are missing from their manuals and software.

"We hook it in, and we have certain items on that program that are blacked out," says Bob Redding. At the Automotive Service Association, Redding believes car makers are trying to drive repair work to their dealerships by withholding repair codes, a move that could cost you money. "About 10% of all vehicles that come into our repair facility, we have to send to the new car dealers."

The problem isn't just limited to brand new cars still under warranty. Bennie Selmon of Tyler's Southwest Automotive says he has to turn away cars on a regular basis. "We had the example yesterday of a Ford Windstar that was, I believe a 99 model. That's been out about three or four years, but we still didn't have the information."

"I don't know of any reason why an independent shop couldn't repair any vehicle." Greg Dana is a spokesman for several major auto makers. He insists they do make repair codes available to mechanics, and says it's a matter of looking in the right place for the information. "It's in our best interest to make sure that every shop in the country can repair every one of our cars."

But mechanics like Bobby Dunn say car makers aren't actually carrying through on those promises to share the codes they need. So, they're getting help from Washington.

"I think it's anti-competitive," says Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. He has introduced the "Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act," a bill requiring car makers to share all the codes to diagnose and fix a car. "If the manufacturers are going to say, 'We're not going to give you access to the code,' then these independent mechanics, the smaller businesses, they're going to be driven out of business."

So next time you break down in a remote area, remember you don't just need a mechanic. You need one with the right code.