Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Prying Data out of Business Can Help

For years there have been reports on the widespread prevalence of auto repair fraud, waste, and incompetence. One recent study by the Department of Transportation put the figure at over $15 billion annually taken out of consumers’ pocketbooks.

Besides stricter law enforcement and media coverage such as CBS’s “60 Minutes” expose last August, what can be done about this endemic problem? Well, progress is being made in some parts of the country which should spread nationwide. It is time to look at these remedies and solutions.

In St. Louis, Mo., John N. Noettl, an innovative engineer, has started a mobile diagnostic service in the form of a well-equipped van that can go to customers’ vehicles for inspection and many minor repair jobs. The van can provide a full diagnosis (400 tests) of the vehicle for $35 per car. It travels to company parking lots and caters to fleet managers and individual owners. If your car, light truck or ambulance can be serviced in a safe place, away from passing traffic, Noettl’s van can be there.

Formerly with the Missouri Auto Club, Noettl helped establish two successful diagnostic centers for Missouri AAA members. In this way, motorists can find out honestly what is wrong with their car before they take it to the repair shop. They also can have their car checked afterwards. Noettl would prefer just to do inspections but he said: “We find that 85 percent of our customers select us to do necessary repairs as well.”

What makes Noettl different from most people in the auto repair business is that he is prevention-minded on a big scale. For example, he already is aggregating his data in order to spot patterns of vehicle operating failures by make and model. He wants the Department of Transportation to help design and set up an organized records system which would eliminate “much of the frustration, bad repair work, and fraudulent activity.”

The spinoffs of his approach for individual consumers also are immediate. By going to consumers in a mobile unit, he saves them time. He gives them accurate cost estimates, spots safety hazards, and can determine compliance with safety and emission regulations. And, or course, he saves consumers money. One client, for example, was purchasing a used car and, after inspection, bought it for $50 less.

Over in Ann Arbor, Mich., David Friedrichs operates an auto repair cooperative with more than 1,700 family members. He has shown another way to obtain superior, honest, and prompt service for customers. A major reason: The customers own the shop.

The co-op also is crusading. Friedrichs is pushing to require the auto manufacturers to make available to independent repair garages the frequent technical service bulletins that are routinely supplied to the auto companies’ franchised dealers. Without these bulletins, he argues, motorists cannot get the benefit of the companies’ latest discoveries about how their vehicles are behaving.

Insurance companies need to deploy their data more publicly and effectively as well. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is beginning to demand such disclosures. Kansas Insurance Commissioner Fletcher Bell said this spring:

“Insurance companies are sole possessors of a vast repository of data on the cost impacts of changes in car design. They have a public, social, and moral responsibility to make that information known to carmakers and the clout to make the auto industry do the right thing.”

The commissioners’ task force stated: “Vehicle design deficiencies have exacted substantial needless human and property damage penalties from consumers, insurers, and society.” (For more information on this report, write to NAIC, 633 W. Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202.)

Encouragingly, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (Watergate Building, Washington, D. C. 20037), now publishes an analysis of the collision loss experience of each year’s models. They have a “10 best” and “10 worst” list. The car with the worst record, the Chevrolet Corvette, had an average loss payment which was more than double the average for all models combined.

All these happenings can lead to the auto companies designing less repair-prone vehicles and facilitate superior diagnosis and repair of vehicles on the road. Consumers need to push industry and government to pick up on these tools and models. It’s another way to fight inflation and reduce a lot of accidents and aggravation.