Monday, April 14, 2008

Right to Repair? Don't we already have that?

I thought it was interesting how this website gives almost no information as to the "goal" of this organization and seeks to put words like "Right" and "Consumer" and "Lawmaker" in large print to attract people. The website is located here:

My overall points here are as follows:

Per below, the "right to repair" bill seems to only want to take information now exclusively held by dealers and put it in the hands of independent mechanics, so that the independent mechanics are not given the "unfair burden" of not having that information with which to fix cars. It has nothing to do with car warranties, which obviously means no out of pocket expense for a car owner until a certain time down the road. No $$ out of pocket, no reason to join this organization, so of course they'll ignore that.

Quick aside here: I happen to love my car and take care of any expensive items I own rather well, so I've become very familiar with my vehicle via a few methods:

- Simple self-education: Become familiar with your car; read the manual; learn the service intervals; know where everything is; open up the hood and get comfortable under there.

- Common Sense: At each fillup, check the engine oil level, all fluid levels; check the tire pressure, and listen for any strange sounds. If you are familiar with how your car sounds when idling and healthy, you'll be more attuned to "bad" sounds.

- Resourcefulness: Try to find someone you know who owns the same car/engine as you. Tell them you'd like to retain lines of communication for whenever something happens to a car or any tips you might hear about how to maintain your car a certain way. Also: find a good online forum specifically relating to your make & model; know your local dealer service desk employee/manager well (they are normally more than happy to answer simple questions over the phone); find a good online parts warehouse or two and order parts when needed online, which are normally cheaper than the same part from the dealership.

These are all things from which most car owners can benefit, and they are not difficult methods to employ in order to ensure time and money savings. I happen to enjoy German cars, and so does a close friend, so we both have a lot to talk about and ideas to share if one of us is having a problem with our respective cars. A good example of even an honest shop charging for a service one can easily do oneself is the "mass air flow sensor" of a car. All cars have them, and they tend to fail around 100K miles. It can sometimes be a $200 part online, but most mechanics charge $300 or more...we're talking about a sensor screwed in using two screws into the air intake pipe- right on the top of the engine with no special tools needed for access. Takes about 2 minutes to replace, or 2 minutes to clean if you want to try cleaning it first before replacing (with a $2.00 can of electronic part cleaner spray). People seem amazed when I tell them this, as if I'm a car guru. It makes me laugh, of course...moving on.

Here are some basic rules of logic to follow for every car owner:

- At each gas fillup, check your tire pressure and your oil (i.e.: open the hood); ensure they are at appropriate levels. Bad tire pressure can lead to easily popped/damaged tires or other safety hazards; low oil can indicate a quart is needed or could be indicative of a larger problem. Keeping on top of the oil and noticing how often the level declines gives one a better overall picture of the health of the vehicle.

- Become familiar & comfortable with the different sounds when your engine is on, and the fluid levels in the reservoir tanks when the engine is off. Changes in these sounds or dips in fluid levels will be noticed more easily if you're aware of where they SHOULD be.

- Make it a point, since a lot of new cars come with huge plastic covers over the engine these days, to remove that plastic cover when the hood is open and, again, become familiar with what's under there.

- Learn where the spark plugs are - you don't have to change them yourself, you just have to know where they are for your own reference - and follow the combustion chamber as far as you can; get familiar with air intake and fuel intake. It's not terribly complicated to check and replace spark plugs oneself, as long as one has the proper tools (including a torque wrench; spark plugs must be torqued to a precise level). This is normally a 100K maintenance item and thus can be done at a more comprehensive repair/maintenance appointment far into your car's life.

- Learn what type of light bulbs your car takes for every single light in the car (license plate illuminator, high beam, low beam, parking beam, side indicators, turn signals, interior dome lights) - this can be done by contacting Daniel Stern at, or just by going to Autozone and asking an employee to tell you which bulb each socket in the car takes. There's NEVER a need to take a car to a mechanic for a damn bulb (though, in fairness, some low and high beam bulbs nowadays, with crowded engine compartments, take quite long to access and change than in years past).

- Learn how to jack a car up in the event a tire is damaged, and learn how to put that donut on the car, how long it will last, and know a reputable shop from which to order tires. Every car has "jacking points" under the rocker panels toward the middle of the car.

The long and short of it is, people need to feel "empowered" with their "freedom" of information flowing seamlessly from dealer to independent mechanic, for no other reason than they don't get screwed when they take their car in for a repair. In other words, this seems to be another case of an organization trying to protect consumers from themselves, not from an evil corporation like Volkswagen, USA, unfairly hoarding their "secret plans" on how to fix a Jetta. In fact, the official technician's repair manual for ANY car can usually be purchased right at the dealership for around $150. Most independent mechanics will have these manuals, among others, and likely model-specific diagnostic equipment as well. Why this equipment and this information should simply be given away to any shop that has a license to operate is beyond me; if a mechanic can fix my car, he can fix it with is talent; if not, he can't and I shouldn't be giving him my business.

While I realize that many cars contain more and more diagnostic information stored in the car's CCM (computer) with each passing generation, people are also becoming lazier, and this is not just due to the fact that cars have become slightly less high-maintenance over the years. That's an entirely different subject. I just think people need to listen to some common sense rules, find a good mechanic one can trust, and self-educate when it comes to cars. Knowledge is the key here! A good mechanic worth his salt will rarely need the specific manufacturer manuals (which one can actually purchase from the dealership or the manufacturer, per above) to diagnose an issue with a car. Even if it is needed, this information is already available. When a car is brand new, every single vehicle purchase is warrantied fully for at least 36,000 miles, so even if the information takes a year or so to spread to most shops and online forums, it will be out there when one needs to take their car to their local shop.

The site above also fails to mention that many "independent" mechanics hook themselves into large networks so that whenever they get stuck, they can ask fellow mechanics from around the country - much like a BBS for mechanics only. Yes, diagnostic machines for a specific vehicle can be expensive, but should these be given away for free to any mechanic who desires one?

Folks need to start taking responsibility for their purchases and learning how to maintain their cars properly.

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