AKRON — In the 1980s, a car was a mode of transportation. Today, the newest models are akin to rolling offices, featuring on-board navigation, hands-free phone connections, interior temperature controls, DVD players and telematics that alert the driver and the service shop of any vehicle maintenance requirements.
When customers walk into a repair shop today, they may not just complain about squealing brakes, but also that the vehicle's Bluetooth won't synch with their cell phone.
"We have taken comfort to an almost unrealistic level in terms of temperature control, seat heating, seat cooling, seat massaging, steering wheel heating," said Bill Moss, owner of EuroService Automotive in Warrenton, Va., as well as the mechanical division director on the Automotive Service Association board of directors.
When it comes to all the comfort and convenience features on today's vehicles, the industry can thank computers, which, back in 1983, just controlled the engine.
"The most significant (advancement) is the integration of computers or solid state electronics in the complete operations of the vehicle, not just engine management but in every facet of the vehicle, from power windows, and memory mirrors to automatic wipers, to tire pressure monitors to engine management and transmission management, the most basic things," Mr. Moss said.
He said vehicle computerization has impacted the auto service industry.
"It has dramatically increased the need for education. It has changed the paradigm for who is naturally qualified to work in this field, organically qualified. We used to look for people that were good with their hands and we still do, but we also look for people that are problem-solvers and good abstract thinkers, people who score highly on abstract testing, that work well with concepts in addition to reality."
Ben Johnson, director of product management for Mitchell Repair Information Co. L.L.C., concurred.
"The most significant change over the last 30 years is the advent of the on-board computers controlling the vehicle. Thirty years ago we still had points and condensers and spark plug wires and probably 40 or 50 wires in the car. And today we have up to 70 electronic control modules controlling everything from the engine performance and emissions and fuel economy to the anti-lock brake systems to the transmission shift points.... We're connecting the vehicle and the consumer to wherever they want to be connected to through the cloud technology and things that can be connected to their office."
As complex as vehicle systems have become, most customers still see the car as a commodity and expect any problems to be repaired immediately. There is still a little bit of the stereotypical attitude that, "It's just a car. How hard can it be?" Mr. Moss said.
Mr. Johnson noted that when other consumer items need repair, such as a refrigerator or air conditioner, the consumer can usually expect a repair person to come to the house in three or four days to fix the problem.
"But if your car has a problem, we all expect to get that car back the same day we left it and at the very worst case, the next day after we left it," he said.
"Leaving a car for four or five days is just not a customer expectation and yet, when you consider the car has so many more parts and SKUs to make their way through the warehousing system, it's actually pretty miraculous that the automotive industry has been able to answer that customer expectation."
Along with the complexity, today's vehicles are considered more reliable than they were 30 years ago, according to Mr. Johnson. Meanwhile, consumers are learning to be more attuned to their maintenance schedules.
The average age of the fleet in America has increased, noted Mr. Moss, "that indicates people are trying to preserve their investment or they're at least learning how to preserve their investment."
"The cars were not maintained as rigorously as they used to be," added Mr. Johnson, "That trend seems to be reversing; we see more and more service work being driven by maintenance schedules and recommended work to be done on the car to keep it in its prime condition."
He said he believes consumers' motivation is due to how expensive it is to repair today's vehicle systems.
"Consumers have gotten scared not to maintain the vehicle because, let's face it, even though the engine and the powertrain may have a 70,000-mile warranty on it, in some cases, if you can't prove with records that you've maintained the vehicle properly, that warranty is null and void and then you potentially have a very expensive repair bill on your hands. And I think that has helped train the consumer, if you will, to be more attentive to the maintenance requirements on the vehicle."
Fortunately for consumers, vehicle maintenance costs have not increased substantially over the past 30 years.
"I think you would probably find it's, in general, a little less expensive to maintain (vehicles) today," Mr. Johnson said. "And the reason is because we have better oils, so we don't have to change the oil necessarily at 3,000 miles, we're changing them at 5,000 miles to 10,000 miles, depending on the vehicle.
"Tune-ups, which we used to do every 10,000 or 12,000 miles, now go 60,000 miles or more on a set of spark plugs," he added. "I think the actual service interval, when you bring your car in it probably is a little more expensive, but you're bringing them in with less frequency. So I think it balances it out. I would say it's on par or perhaps a little less expensive."
However, the cost has increased for fixing or replacing engine parts on a vehicle, compared with 30 years ago, according to Mr. Johnson, mostly due to the increased labor and time involved working on today's vehicles. Most modern vehicles have front-wheel drive, requiring special tools and procedures for removing the engines, he said.
"They (vehicle systems) break less, but when they do break, what used to be considered the heavier repairs, are probably a little pricier than they used to be," he said.
Mr. Johnson said that along with vehicles, the independent repair shop image has improved over the past 30 years.
"Even with the advanced technologies on the vehicle, the aftermarket is doing a really good job of preserving its image as being able to address concerns and dealing with issues on these more modern cars. The last survey I saw…indicated the overall customer satisfaction in the aftermarket for a service event is still higher than the customer satisfaction at the manufacturer's dealership."
He said he also believes repair shops have an overall higher degree of credibility today than they once had.
"You see more and more shops that have earned that respect. They've got cleaner waiting rooms, the floors are mopped and it's not the old grease pit of 30, 40 years ago."
However, it has become more expensive to operate a service center.
"The tech equipment that was required 30 years ago was so minimal and quite universal," said Mr. Moss. "And now with the test equipment there's more depth required because there are more sub systems on a car that require testing and can fail and are not a mechanical issue, they're an electronic issue. So you have to be able to communicate with those electronics. And, to some degree, there are some universal communicators but some of them require proprietary communication devices that drive the cost of doing business up."
Educating technicians also has become a necessary expense for shops, he said, "whether in class time and downtime for the time a technician may be sitting in a classroom instead of in your shop."
Mr. Moss also expects the costs of running a repair shop to continue to increase in the future, especially when it comes to acquiring proprietary software and applications to diagnose vehicles.
He also noted that advertising has "certainly changed a lot for small business. What you used to spend on Yellow Pages, you now spend on the internet." But advertising budgets will still be a required percentage of a company's budget to keep drawing in customers, he said.
"If you asked 20 years ago if we anticipated the things that we have now, I'd dare say most people in my position wouldn't have anticipated it," said Mr. Moss, adding, "I don't think I can even comprehend what 20 more years will generate, but in the 10-year picture—hybrid technology, diesel technology, all the alternate fuels, compressed natural gas. There's a huge, latent market for alternate fuels."
Mr. Johnson also predicts vehicle telematics will play a bigger role in the automotive market in the near future.
"We're seeing more and more thrust both on the OE side and on the aftermarket side where the vehicle is communicating its issues before the consumer actually brings it in. Why that's exciting to me—I sit on a couple of committees with Equipment Tool Institute and with the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association where we are making sure that the consumer has the right to have that information placed where they trust it—it's fine if it goes to the automotive dealer, but if I'm a customer of a Firestone store or Ben's Garage, and Ben is the guy who maintains my car, I want him to get those notifications."
With telematics, the vehicle will send a diagnostic code to the service shop when there is a malfunction or a maintenance alert. If it is a minor problem, such as a loose fuel cap, the service shop can call the driver and alert them. If it's a problem that requires service work, the shop can call the driver and schedule an appointment, research the problem, order parts and be prepared to fix the vehicle when it arrives in the service bay.
"The bottom line is when you show up, if I think that there is a part that very likely caused it, I can have that part waiting there for you. I can have the right technician with the right skill set on hand," Mr. Johnson explained. "We know a lot more about the car at the time the failure occurs instead of waiting until the car shows up and rolls into the bay to really do our first analysis of it.
"But I think you'll see more of that as this telematics technology becomes more pervasive in the marketplace, both from the OE side and the aftermarket side. I think it will allow us once again to continue to meet that customer expectation of having the car in and out very quickly and actually at less cost overall to maintain it because we can keep tabs on how that car is operating on a day-to-day basis and advise you and help include the vehicle operator as part of the maintenance plan and lifecycle of that vehicle."
Mr. Johnson also warned that with all the new technologies and features that OEMs are including in their vehicles, independent repair shops will have to stay on top of the learning curve in order to compete with car dealerships.
"Every time that customer comes in, whether it's for an oil change, a tire rotation or what have you, I think it's (the dealer's) job to promote themselves to show sophistication that they are engaged in the electronics revolution on the vehicle and that, 'Yes, I can absolutely rotate your tires, but when that check engine light comes on, regardless if it's a Ford Taurus or a BMW, I'm ready for it.'
"It's a constant sell job because the OEs on the other side with these telematics reports and these OnStar reports, are definitely trying to imply that, 'Here's where you need to bring your car. We've got the technology. We're the ones collecting the data. We're the ones that are helping you maintain it. So you need to keep bringing it into us.' The battle lines are drawn," he said.
Mr. Moss said he doesn't think technology will squeeze out the independent repair shops. but it will impact whom they hire to work on vehicles.
"It certainly modifies the business model and requires a different mindset in hiring," he said. He expects in the future that auto technology will become a more accepted career choice in high schools and less as an alternative for below-average students, such as those with weak reading skills.
"That's not our candidate anymore," he said. "We need good reading skills. We need good math skills and great comprehension and we need that abstract thinking…. It does raise the bar."
As opposed to tinkering with a car in the driveway, today's automotive career path requires "a conscious path of education to come up to speed and to be employable requires some education and to grow requires continuing education," he said.
"With all these technologies, training has never been more important because the technologies continue to expand," said Mr. Johnson, who said he would like to see certification for all auto technicians.
"I do believe that some sort of certificate, skills assessment and certification program, would actually benefit our industry greatly. And I think it will come to that and when that happens it will, once again, raise the level of credibility of our industry to the consumers.
"…I think that cars are so complex now that it really ought to be in place. I think that will happen, I'm not sure how long that will take but most of the other developed countries now have some sort of a license certification and I think we're headed in that direction."