Auto Technicians ain’t what they used to be

Graphic by Spencer Kosior

By Spencer Kosior

For modern mechanics, automation is an increasingly important tool of the trade. They need Right to Repair legislation to ensure they can receive training to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving technology in new vehicles.

“Now you need to be much more of an electronics technician than you were a bunch of years ago.”

The Motor Vehicle Right to Repair Act that Massachusetts voters passed in 2012 made it easier for every automotive technician across the United States to access that knowledge. It created a memorandum of understanding for automotive manufacturers around the world. Manufacturers were required to make technical information and diagnostic tools available to all repair shops; regardless of whether it was affiliated with a dealer.  These electronic tools are vital to a mechanic.

“Now you need to be much more of an electronics technician than you were a bunch of years ago,” says John Paul, a master certificate holder from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and AAA Northeast’s “Car Doctor.” He also has more than 40 years of automotive repair experience.

Electronic controllers first appeared in automobiles in the 1970s. They were only programmed for simple, singular tasks like regulating how much fuel was injected into an engine block—or managing an anti-lock brake system. Electronics in modern vehicles are much more complex and perform many more tasks. They control everything a car does through a series of modules, sensors and computers that communicate between one another.

“To be a successful technician today, you must really have top electricity and electronic knowledge and skills,” says David Protano, chair of the automotive technology program at Boston’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

Technicians need to be willing to spend time each week reading about the newest technology in the field, according to Protano.

“You’re not going to sit there and stare at the car and try to come up with an answer.”

Technology in the automotive industry—like other technology-driven industries—evolves at exponential speeds. Some information, tools and repair techniques can become obsolete as often as every two years. Access to information and training is essential for a technician to do his or her job.

“You’re not going to sit there and stare at the car and try to come up with an answer,” Paul says.

It is not what a technician can remember that is most critical for making repairs, it is interpreting diagnostic data to find the best technique to effectively complete one. John Paul says that modern repair technicians need to be very computer literate in order to access the information needed to diagnose an issue and look up the solution from an automotive information database.

Technicians who work in both dealership-owned and independent repair shops rely on tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of diagnostic tools and database access to do their jobs. Dealership technicians have an easier time accessing these databases and tools for the make of vehicle their dealer sells. It can be harder for independent technicians to obtain the tools and information they need.

It is more difficult for independents because often they do not have the same financial support as dealerships. There is less money coming in and as much, if not more, demand for service. Independents are also more likely to be servicing a wider variety of vehicles than dealerships, so the independent technicians need to be fluent with more automotive systems and techniques than a dealership technician. Easily accessible knowledge is crucial to work in this field.

These tools and information still had a price, but Protano—who spent some of his automotive repair career as an independent technician—says it put independent technicians on the same playing field as dealership technicians in terms of what repairs they could do. It also allowed dealerships to expand the scope of vehicles they could service and the types of used cars they could sell since they could now access even more information.

“The Right to Repair Act was a positive move in the automotive industry,” says Protano.

The Right to Repair Act did create a debatable, new challenge for the repair community, too. According to John Paul, there were several automotive manufacturers such as Hyundai that made its technical databases available to any technician who registered on its website. Signing up was free. After the Right to Repair Act was passed, paywalls were put up around these databases—Hyundai’s included. A price tag was put on knowledge that was, and is still, priceless.

Both Protano and Paul still say they believe having the law is beneficial for technicians across the entire automotive repair industry.  They even think it should be updated so manufacturers are required to provide more information to technicians—like telematics data.

“I feel if this information was made available to the entire automotive repair market it helps the industry and doesn’t empower one entity,” says Protano.

“It’s no different than when someone in your IT department says they have to take over your computer.”

If technicians can access this data, they could more efficiently diagnose issues and make repairs.

“It’s no different than when someone in your IT department says they have to take over your computer,” says Paul.

He is not implying that making telematics data more accessible will make it possible for someone to hack and assume control of your car’s systems, however. He means a technician can expedite the repair workflow. Instead of having to plug an expensive diagnostic tool into a physical access port on a vehicle, the repair technician can wirelessly connect to a car’s systems with a computer. The troubleshooting process is made more universal for the technician.

Access to this information could become as important as maintaining an ASE certification for a contemporary automotive repair technician.

“You’re more successful than someone who really doesn’t have the expertise,” says Protano.

About Spencer Kosior 4 Articles
Spencer Kosior is a multi-faceted lifelong learner with a love of technology and novelty! He works in broadcast as a writer, producer and videographer; helping bring to life stories for organizations like WCVB-TV and MIT.