So … What’s the answer?
Repairing vehicles today requires research and specific information, no matter how much experience a repair technician has or how many tools a shop owns. To repair a vehicle according to the safety standards it was originally built with, the repair technician needs access to the OEM repair information, which may or may not be easy to find or affordable to obtain.
As automobile technology advances and each year brings new developments, more precise measurements and additional safety modifications to the previous models, the burden grows on collision repair technicians to find the right information and tools to perform repairs that keep vehicles safe and working properly.
Elissa Larremore, owner of CBS1 Collision in Louisiana, says “What might have been a correct repair procedure last month may have changed this month. It’s absolutely a necessity to stay on top of the changes … however, it’s sometimes a challenge based on the availability of the information supplied.”
Where Can You Find Info?
Currently, there is no single, reliable, up-to-date source of official OEM information for collision repair, maintenance and mechanical repairs and bulletins. There are many places to find pieces of this information – sometimes for a price, sometimes for free, sometimes in exchange for an email address.
Ideally, every collision repair shop and technician would have access to, and always use, OEM repair information. Mike Anderson, president and owner of Collision Advice Consulting Services, recommended that estimators refer to specific OEM documentation, which means it’s important to have access to the information before the repair begins.
“As it stands, to find the most reliable, accurate and up-to-date information,” says Dan Nagy of Nagy’s Collision in Ohio. “the easiest way is if the procedure is in the estimating software, which, at a guess, would be half the time. If it is not there, then we start online searching for the available information.”
So what are repair shops using to get the most accurate information? How easy is it to find the information they need? Ultimately, the kinds of cars that need repairing affects the information needed, so every shop’s needs are different.
“It depends on what is readily available on the sites we use,” Larremore says. “They are not always 100 percent updated, which is not good for my teams or the consumer.”
Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), suggests using OEM1stop or other third-party services. He says that “OEM collision repair documentation on the particular vehicle” is necessary to write an accurate estimate. He recommends using “a third-party service like ALLDATA … you can’t work on today’s vehicles without that information.”
Bob Parra, owner of Parra Car Care in Texas, says his shops use “Publications. Parts vendors. Aftermarket parts vendors like NAPA, O’Reilly, Advance Parts and AutoZone all have training available.”
Mike LeVasseur, director of Corporate Development at ABRA Auto Body and Glass in Pennsylvania, says, “Through proper management, data is gathered in several ways. Subscriptions to ALLDATA, programs in the estimating software (such as CCC One or Mitchell 1) I-CAR, OEM websites and other proprietary sites.”
Ultimately, says Parra, “You need all of your resources if you want to work on most everything on the road.”
Do Other Options Exist?
In a word, yes. However, the sheer number of options might be part of the problem, and the lack of an organized resource or a standard is confusing for shops.
Various OEMs offer free information but not always for every make or model. Subscriptions vary from daily, weekly, monthly or annual renewals. Costs range from $350 to more than $1,000 per year, and not every third party or educational resource offers access to every OEM site.
Also, some of the sources are more accurate, more comprehensive and updated faster than others. Some come with customer service, while others simply list links to useful information. Some sites include a combination of information, including online manuals, separate mechanical and collision repair information, bulletins, videos and guides for various makes, models and OEMs.
“[Price, accessibility, ease of use, quality of service and best practices for safe repairs are] all over the board,” Nagy says. “It’s in so many places, in so many different formats and hard to understand and navigate.”
What About Third-Party Vendors?
Third-party vendors can fill some of the gaps, including access to some OEM information for the cost of a subscription. ALLDATA subscribers, for example, can choose the kind of access they want, and various products are offered for repair shops, for collision shops and for DIY technicians.
According to Larremore, third-party sites “are great. ALLDATA is the one that my teams prefer … but the third parties don’t always have completely updated information, whereas the OE source may have the latest updates.”
While these resources are a great starting point, the holes in the data supplied by third-party vendors can cost shops a lot. “Independents and smaller shops that want to repair vehicles correctly cannot necessarily assume the financial burden of subscribing to all of the OE repair manuals,” Larremore continues. “The updated information isn’t always available on an aggregator site like ALLDATA. It’s about repairing the vehicle safely, timely and correctly the first time.”
Are There Free, Third-Party Resources?
Free, third-party resources exist, but users encounter the same problems as with the third-party vendors: incomplete information, varying costs and missing updates.
A group of OEMs came together and built OEM1Stop, a website with OEM-approved links to access official information in one place. The financial burden to access the information still rests on the repair technician or the shop, but the information for the participating OEMs is in one place.
Most free resources are great for finding the information shops need. But, like OEM1stop, they tend to provide a lot of links to information that can be expensive. The bonus here is that there are a lot of options, such as Tech-Cor, I-CAR, OEM1stop, the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) and DGtech, to name a few.
Larremore explains, “We have just recently begun exploring all of these options since I took over the shops last year. My managers, estimators and techs are absolutely overwhelmed.
“For example, one manager was trying to research how closely he could repair a bumper in relation to the sensors on the bumper. He searched everywhere, but the information was only available through subscription to the OE repair website. He was highly frustrated searching for a simple repair procedure.
“It took quite a bit of time for him to realize the information isn’t available unless we pay for it. Every repair is becoming more expensive, the burden is ultimately on the shop repairing the vehicle, and the shop is squeezed to perform the repair at rates that haven’t risen to meet the actual cost of repair. It is costly to have someone research that data, as well.”
General Motors and Kia are known for providing the most comprehensive guides for free, and many third-party sites link to their information, among other OEMs, but don’t list prices until you get to the OEM website. Most automakers require a subscription to stay on top of the most recent information, whether it’s for a day, a week, a month or a year at a time.
What Are the Best Options?
American shop owners don’t seem to agree on the best overall option, but many tend to use multiple sources of information and agree that the most important thing is to find the information and use it, rather than assuming outdated information is still accurate.
“Depending on the path you choose, you may have to pay for OE information from the OEM, or ALLDATA is a paid subscription” says LeVasseur. “All information options are relatively easy to access, but not all of the necessary information is available. That’s why shops will use multiple sources and keep surfing the internet for answers,”
At this point, it’s up to individual shops to dig through the information available and decide what they can and should use. “OEM1stop is free, ALLDATA and CCC are fee-based but not terribly unreasonable, I-CAR offers free access for gold status, but it’s still limited compared to the OEMs and ALLDATA,” Larremore says. “As far as ease of use, they are pretty easy to navigate, but there is so much data it can sometimes be overwhelming and very time consuming.”
OEMs spend a lot of time and money developing new technologies every year, and understandably don’t feel the need to provide free information about their products. But is this information necessary for the safety of drivers?
Finding information seems to be getting easier and easier, especially with so many websites providing links, but accessing it is still costly. Perhaps in the midst of a technology boom, the repair industry is making the most of what is available today.
Parra opts to make the best of the current situation. “The best option for the last 30 years,” he says, “is to strive to give high quality service to your clients and be a good value to them so you can afford the information. The options we have are so much better than what we had 25 years ago.”
Currently, there is no perfect answer. But is leaving each individual shop to research and fund its own repair information through everyday search engines the best we can do?
“Here’s what I know,” Nagy says. “The OEs have the information and the procedures. If one of these can get all of that gathered up, deciphered, organized and released, it will be a hit.”