DES MOINES, Iowa-Automakers say it takes the skills of a medical specialist to maintain a new car, but according to industry officials, too many schools still treat would-be mechanics as ``grease monkeys.'' The complaint about training arose as a group of attorneys general grilled the auto industry recently about the increased complexity of their products and the rising cost of repairs. Participants included the attorneys general of Iowa, New Mexico, and representatives from other states as well as members of the Federal Trade Commission.
``Why aren't we moving toward simplicity?'' asked Thomas Udall, New Mexico's attorney general, who said he remembers when fixing a car was so easy that people took pride in not taking their car to the shop.
``The better solution, from the manufacturers' point of view I guess, is to make them not break. The goal is to make them last longer,'' said John Whatley, an attorney for the Association of International Automobile Importers.
Manufacturers said the government's clean air, fuel economy and safety regulations are largely responsible for the development of increasingly complex and costly auto systems, as are consumer demands for sophisticated electronic equipment.
``Similar to the health care industry, the family doctor or `shade tree' mechanic is becoming a thing of the past,'' said Marshal Roe, manager of service planning and development for Ford Motor Co.'s customer service division.
Larry Heckler, president of the Automotive Parts and Accessories Association, said that while states are talking about certifying mechanics to protect consumers, many underestimate the importance of training to give mechanics the math and computer skills to handle the new technology.
``School systems still consider the field to be one for those who do not have the grades to go to college,'' he said. ``This perception of technicians as `grease monkeys' does not reflect the reality of today's vehicle repair field and needs to change quickly.''
Under a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the auto industry has formed a committee to coordinate training efforts.
The Auto Repair Task Force of the National Association of Attorneys General also released its ``Top Ten'' list of U.S. consumer complaints. Heading the list was automobiles, which included complaints about sales of new and used cars as well as gripes about repairs.
``Facing auto repairs is a terrifying prospect for many consumers,'' said Bonnie Campbell, Iowa's attorney general and chairwoman of the association's consumer protection committee.
``When consumers have auto problems, they need a system where they can rely on the diagnosis, have confidence in the repair and then know they paid a fair price,'' Ms. Campbell said.
The task force heard last fall from consumers and consumer advocates in Washington. The recent hearing was for automakers, parts suppliers and the repair industry.
Chrysler Corp.'s senior staff counsel, Allen Huss, said even more complexity lies ahead as the government mandates cleaner-running, safer and more fuel-efficient cars with tamper-proof controls.
``The future holds computers in every service bay, linked to electronic diagnostic libraries with the latest service bulletins programmed into the diagnostic logic and long hours by skilled mechanics pinpointing difficult-to-find transient conditions,'' he said.
``Auto repair in the future will look more like the practice of medicine than the traditional view of the corner mechanic repairing an engine by touch and by sound.''
Al Thomas, director of service policy and regulatory compliance at General Motors Corp., said consumers also have responsibilities, including following manufacturers' maintenance recommendations and looking at the booklets and fliers provided with each new car.
``There is only one problem with all of the printed material supplied. Someone needs to read it to get the message,'' he said. ``We have begun providing audio tapes with some models explaining vehicle features; however, this still does not guarantee anyone will use the information.''
Mr. Rosenfeld writes for the Associated Press.