One of the biggest complaints from auto repair consumers is the cost of repairs and why they are charged for diagnostics. These days, most shops will charge for diagnosing what is wrong with your car. Sometimes it is credited to the repair if the car is repaired in the shop and sometimes it’s an additional charge on top of the repair.
The question on most people’s mind is, “Why do I have to pay someone to tell me what is wrong with my car when I already know what it is?” Well, in most cases, the customer actually doesn’t know what is wrong with the car. They know that the Check Engine Light is on, or the brakes are squeaking, or coolant is leaking. But these are symptoms, not a diagnosis, and it can take time to determine what exactly is causing the symptom. Sometimes the problem can be found very quickly; other times, it can literally take days to determine exactly what is causing the problem, especially if it’s intermittent.
When diagnostics are performed, not only is the technician involved, but there are often specialized tools that must be used. Scan tools communicate with the onboard computers and a programing interface is used to update their programming. Oscilloscopes and multimeters are used to test electrical circuits and sensors. Listening devices can help isolate the cause of a mysterious noise. The list goes on and on.
Repair shops must purchase these special tools and they can be expensive. To recoup the cost, shops must charge for their use and how much time is involved not only in using the tool, but making sure their technicians know how to use it correctly. This is very similar to paying for an x-ray, where part of the cost goes to paying for the x-ray machine and part goes to paying for the x-ray technician’s time and education.
As our vehicles have become more complex, the tools needed for diagnosing them have become more complex and expensive, and so has the training on how to use them. While it may look simple to plug in a scan tool and read the fault code, that is really only the beginning of the process. Fault codes must be diagnosed to determine the actual cause of the problem.
Not all scan tools work efficiently on all vehicles and just like any other product, some scan tools are of higher quality than others. It’s pretty common for a shop to have multiple scan tools, five or more in many cases. Each scan tool can cost thousands of dollars, and software updates for each new model year drives the cost even higher. At the end of the day, shops can end up spending a minimum of $30,000 or more just on scan tools.
So, while your local auto parts store may use a $150 code reader to read your fault codes and reset the Check Engine Light, they are not diagnosing anything. In most cases, they are only trying to sell parts that may be related to a specific fault code and offer no guarantee that replacing the part will fix the problem.
Often with our newer vehicles, certain problems can be corrected by updating the software in one or more of the onboard computers. Previously, this type of work was done only by the dealer. However, in recent years, the government ordered the manufacturers to make this information available to independent repair shops as well.
And, as with everything else in life, this comes with a cost. Shops must purchase additional hardware specifically for programming. Also, each vehicle software update must be purchased from the manufacturer, either as part of a subscription or on a case by case basis. A colleague of mine recently visited an independent repair shop that was using factory scan tools and programming equipment for each of the models they worked on and they had already invested over $150,000.
Because our vehicles have so many computerized systems and the tools themselves cost so much, the price of diagnosing most vehicle problems has risen rather dramatically over the last few years. Shops can no longer avoid charging for their diagnostic time—there is simply too much cost involved in the training and special tools now necessary to perform a proper diagnosis.
In this case, I cannot help but see similarities between auto repair and medicine. There is no question medical training is much more extensive, and the diagnostic equipment is much more expensive, but the need to charge for a diagnosis is much the same. If you were to go to the hospital with a broken arm, which you had diagnosed yourself, they would not simply put your arm in a cast and send you home. They would “diagnose” your broken arm, most likely with an x-ray, which you would be charged for on top of what you pay for the setting and casting of your broken arm. And if the x-ray came back negative, and your arm wasn’t actually broken, you would still pay for the x-ray, just like you should have to pay for diagnostics on your car, even if they don’t end up pinpointing the problem with the first round of diagnoses.
Please try to keep this in mind the next time you take your vehicle in for repairs. Proper diagnosis is always necessary to determine what is causing the problem with your vehicle. Well trained technicians using the proper tools and equipment can usually get to the cause of most problems pretty quickly and they certainly deserve to be compensated for their time while doing so. That’s why it’s so important to go to a quality shop that has the tools and the people who know how to use them.
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