Different Philosophies

Different Philosophies

There are two types of “automotive service philosophies” — the maintenance philosophy and diagnostic philosophy. While quite different, both have the ability to produce reliable diagnosis and repair. Which side do you favor?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said something to the effect that, “Nothing is permanent except change itself.”

That point was recently driven home while researching technical information on the diagnosis and repair of the relatively new Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems, which are designed to prevent skids occurring during  emergency driving situations. The ESC prevents skids by using a yaw rate and deceleration sensor to compare the driver’s steering wheel input with the forward motion of the vehicle. If vehicle is in an under- or over-steering condition, the ESC senses the driver is losing control and it applies one of the front brakes to help pull the vehicle in the correct direction. ESC may also apply the front and rear brakes on one side to prevent a rollover and may also reduce wheel slippage by electronically closing the throttle plate. Technological changes like this are now affecting how an independent shop conducts business, driving some away from high-tech repairs and into maintenance.

It’s important for jobbers and parts distributors to understand how the maintenance-based philosophy is affecting their parts and equipment sales. First, the “real” repair market is shrinking because vehicles are becoming more reliable with each model-year introduction. The sales of expendable parts like belts, hoses, ride control, tune-up, filter and other maintenance parts may have declined because auto manufacturers are adopting modern technology to reduce vehicle maintenance intervals.

To illustrate, a formerly expendable part like a fuel filter is now a lifetime component of the fuel pump assembly itself. Lifetime metal timing chains are replacing expendable rubber timing belts in new engines while regenerative braking systems in hybrid vehicles are reducing brake lining wear to practically zero. 

In response to a shrinking scheduled maintenance market, the maintenance-based philosophy has now turned from replacing expendable parts to replacing or flushing “expendable” fluids in the transmission, power steering, brake and cooling systems. The most recent effect of fluid flushing has been, in some cases, a notorious over-selling of fluid maintenance. Overselling fluid maintenance, which has become known throughout the trade as “wallet flushing,” is considered by many industry activists as a black mark against the automotive service industry in general.

The major change in diagnostic operating philosophies is the popularization of multiplexed electronic body control systems. The impact of such a technological change comes when a component must be programmed to communicate with other components and computers. Currently, the only equipment generally capable of programming computers when they are replaced is the original equipment manufacturer’s scan tool. When a shop must equip at the OE level, the learning curves become steep, the equipment expensive and the equipment depreciation schedules precipitous.   

Because servicing ESC and other on-board electronics requires a longer learning curve and a higher equipment investment to cover a relatively small percentage of the market, modern automotive service philosophy is now diverging into two distinctly different paths: maintenance and diagnostics.

In many cases, diagnosing systems like ESC requires application-specific training, original equipment scan tools and OE manufacturer Web sites. The cost of maintaining OE repair capability for the 15 or more popular nameplates currently sold in the United States is generally cost-prohibitive for most small repair shops.  

In response, many shops have chosen a maintenance philosophy because scheduled maintenance procedures offer predictability and require less tooling and training. Other shops might choose the diagnostic philosophy because they feel uniquely qualified to provide a high level of customer service for computer-controlled operating systems. In most cases, maintenance and diagnostic shops co-exist very well in the same market because either shop working out of its specialty isn’t a profitable allocation of resources and talent.

With that said, there are still many general repair shops that attempt to span both extremes. Larger shops with 10 or more bays can profitably function as general repair shops because the space and technical expertise is available to perform a wide range of repairs on a wide range of vehicles. Smaller shops must narrow their service focus simply because their potential education and equipment investments will outstrip their potential profits if they attempt to provide a wide range of nameplate diagnostic and repair services.   

If we define maintenance philosophy as dealing with the predictable and diagnostic philosophy as dealing with the unpredictable, then we have a good idea of why the market is diverging along these paths. To illustrate, scheduling time for a lube, oil, filter (LOF) and visual vehicle inspection is relatively less difficult because the average time for most LOF services is about 20 minutes. If the visual inspection during an LOF reveals the need for a new serpentine belt, brake replacement or wheel alignment, the “book” time required to perform those services is equally predictable and most easily implemented in modern shop management systems.

The time to perform diagnostics, on the other hand, is generally unpredictable because a glowing orange “check engine” light might be repaired by spending minutes to tighten a loose gas cap or by spending hours to research and diagnose a difficult programming issue in the Powertrain Control Module’s (PCM) software package. In either instance, pricing structures must be adjusted to realize good profitability on the relatively simple repairs and absorb potential losses on the relatively complex repairs.

In some cases, the maintenance versus diagnostics split has been pushed to the extremes. Quick-lube shops might perform only quick-service lubrications, fluid flushes, wiper blade replacements and other low-skilled maintenance services that can be completed in less than an hour. Tire shops, on the other hand, might occupy the middle ground by concentrating their energies on predictable, maintenance-based repairs like wheel alignment, brakes and minor underhood services. 

Also in the middle, but verging on the diagnostic, are the engine and powertrain repair shops that specialize in heavy-duty, time-consuming engine, transmission and drive axle repair work. These shops diagnose mechanical failures and prescribe the correct remedy for each tangible failure, whether it is a simple manifold gasket replacement or major engine rebuild.

At the other extreme, the diagnostic-based shop is prepared to spend extreme amounts of time and resources dealing with abstract electronic failures, like intermittent power loss, battery drains, and incorrect body control operations like malfunctioning antitheft and safety devices. To do this, the diagnostic shop must subscribe to at least one technical hotline and a number of data bases, including OE repair Web sites. The diagnostic shop must also buy expensive OE scan tools along with general electrical diagnostic equipment, and spend many hours in research and training to deal with specific types of vehicle problems.  

To put the diagnostic versus maintenance issue in its proper focus, it’s important for any jobber or distributor to understand that the diagnostic-based shop’s hourly cost of doing business might be approximately twice that of the maintenance-based shop. To avoid “sticker shock,” most diagnostic shops menu-price their services. This means diagnosing a check engine light might cost the customer $125 for 30 minutes. On the other hand, the cost is well worth it if a shop can produce a reliable diagnosis and repair.

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