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Gary Goms: The Modern Independent Shop

By Gary Goms

Small changes in technology are old hat. Shops must be prepared for new technology from the ground up.
While crystal ball gazing is generally out of my field of expertise, most of us should nevertheless be taking a look into the future to understand how new technologies will affect the repair and parts distribution sectors of our industry. Sad to say, most veteran shop owners respond to the challenges of new technologies with, “We’ll master new technologies the same way we mastered alternators, disc brakes and electronic ignition.” Statements like this are more wishful thinking than well-reasoned outcome because earlier technologies were usually incremental improvements on old designs rather than the ground-up designs we’re seeing today.

As for incremental improvements on an existing design, General Motors has introduced its new version of stop-start technology, which basically consists of a conventional engine and powertrain in which the engine is designed to shut off when the vehicle is at rest. This feature is common to hybrid vehicles because the idea is to avoid wasting gasoline and increasing exhaust emissions by allowing the engine to idle at stoplights. The GM system is basically a generator/starter assembly that’s connected to the engine crankshaft by a heavy drive belt. A large battery resides in the trunk area of the vehicle, which allows the engine to be silently started when the accelerator is applied.

Similarly, we’re looking at clean diesel technology being introduced into modern passenger vehicles. Diesel-powered vehicles are old hat in Europe because fuel efficiency is an absolute requirement for taxicabs and other commercial passenger vehicles. Clean diesel technology applies the full range of modern engine control electronics to create diesel engines that not only perform as well as gasoline engines, but that also deliver much better fuel economy. Because conventional mechanical fuel systems have been replaced by a computer chip, service-ready training is required.

I think it’s obvious that federal energy and environmental policy is the driving force behind more ground-up research by auto manufacturers. Our most recent domestic ground-up design is the Chevrolet Volt, which is essentially an electric car with its own on-board gasoline-powered generator. The Volt is slowly gaining acceptance, much like the early Toyota and Honda hybrid cars did years ago. Despite the many criticisms of this new technology, Chevrolet had to build the Volt and get it into the marketplace to gain the manufacturing experience and consumer feedback needed to develop future generations of “green” vehicles.

General Motors gained volumes of real-world experience during the early 1990s when it leased its then-new EV-1 electric cars to a select group of consumers in California and Arizona. When the EV-1 was eventually pulled off the market, this enthusiastic group of customers actually tried to buy these cars back. Since it cost GM about $80,000 to manufacture an EV-1 at that time, price was an issue. The lack of service infrastructure and the projected lack of market share needed to support the EV-1 also prompted General Motors to scrap the EV-1 project.

The data gained from the EV-1 experiment nevertheless supplied the foundation for the current Chevrolet Volt. Most domestic and import auto manufacturers are now offering their own versions of electric and hybrid vehicles. Given the universal appeal of “green” transportation, many manufacturers have extended hybrid power into their high-end vehicle lines.

All of this technology is based upon computers and electronic modules controlling vehicle functions. Advancing battery technology and power control strategies are also improving performance and longevity of battery-powered vehicles. In most cases, a factory scan tool and database is required for any major diagnosis or repair. Because keeping up with modern vehicle technology can, in the most literal sense, become a full-time job, I think more modern technicians will find themselves specializing in specific services or manufacturers.

When we speak of tooling in the modern independent repair shop, we’re speaking of more than just buying the latest “special” wrench. For example, today’s extended service interval vehicles often require a scan tool to check various fluid levels in the vehicle. And, while the technician is checking fluid levels, he also might be checking the general health of the vehicle itself. If he’s using an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) scan tool or an aftermarket J-2534 reprogrammer, he might also install the latest calibrations in the powertrain control module (PCM) to correct issues covered in the latest technical service bulletins (TSBs). When he repairs the vehicle, he has the option of using the OEM database to access OEM repair procedures.

I think it’s also fair to say that the modern independent shop will develop more specialized service bays and have a wireless computer terminal in each bay. The wireless computer terminal allows instant access to various databases and allows technicians to reprogram vehicle control modules without moving the vehicle to another service bay.

Another tooling issue we’re facing in the modern independent shop is that many of the OEM diagnostic procedures are designed for use with the OEM scan tool. I recently experienced this when diagnosing a seat warmer on a modern self-adjusting seat. The seat was also equipped with a sensor that adjusted the cushioning effect of the air bag by estimating the occupants’ weight. In short, the aftermarket scan tool simply didn’t have the ability to “read” the seat control module, which rendered the OEM diagnostic data useless.

In view of the above, I think it’s apparent that small shops simply can’t afford the tooling required for the dozen or more auto manufacturers participating in our domestic market. Most shop owners should therefore move away from the old-school general repair shop model into a more modern vehicle or service-specific model. As for the future of the “general” repair shop model, any independent can become a general repair facility, provided it has enough service bays, technicians and market support to do so.

One of the major changes in the independent service market will be the need for “service-ready” training when dealing with the new ground-up vehicle designs containing a high-voltage battery.

In the past, the independent service market trained after the technology had passed out of warranty into the independent market. Much of that learning curve was based on trial-and-error experimentation and upon bits and pieces of training and information. Today, it’s nearly impossible to diagnose and repair modern vehicles until the technician has a formal understanding of how the various systems work.

How does the independent aftermarket approach service-ready training? First, we generally can’t service new technology until it’s passed out of its warranty period, so we do have the luxury of providing most of our training slightly after, instead of before, the new technology has appeared. But, in another sense of the word, technicians need vehicle-specific training before they attempt to service the many new platforms coming into the general market.

We do have a network of private trainers specializing in specific systems like hybrid vehicles or modern diesel injection systems and who offer classes that can vary from between three hours to three days in length. It’s a tough market because the time required to research, develop and “de-bug” the material can be months and sometimes years. To be profitable, these trainers must also assemble large classes and service a very large geographic area. Travel costs alone make up a very large part of presenting a class on modern vehicle technology.

Some parts distribution systems offer training in a series of classes that are sequential and of ascending complexity. Here again, large and devoted class numbers are required to make these offerings cost-effective. Conventional manufacturer and jobber clinics generally aren’t adaptable to complex technical topics because of expense and time constraints. On the other hand, one-night product update classes will always be needed to keep local technicians up to date on current product technology. But, whatever the current offerings, the need for service-ready training will become readily apparent as vehicle operating systems become more complex.

Gary Goms is a former educator and shop owner who remains active in the aftermarket service industry. Gary is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician (CMAT) and has earned
the L1 advanced engine performance certification. He is also a graduate of Colorado State University and belongs to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

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