by Iris Winston

The engine of the VW Passat cuts out.

The automotive technician estimated that he could spend several hours looking for the source of the electrical problem. Instead, a quick consultation with another technician gave him the answer in a few minutes.

Cooperation between professionals is usual. The difference in this case was that the auto technician with the problem was in El Paso, Texas. The tech with the solution was in Ottawa. The two have never met. The call for help and the answer were delivered via the Internet.

“It just happened that I had run into a similar problem recently,” says Mike Villeneuve, President of Euro-Asian Automotive Inc. “I was able to tell him that it wasn’t necessary to replace the relays to stop the engine cutting out. The answer was to reprogram the transmission.”

Problems requiring outside consultation may not occur very often – industry statistics indicate once a month – but they are becoming more usual as the computerization of automobiles increases. Most high-end new models have several computers on board. They perform various functions, from monitoring the exhaust system for pollutants to setting the ignition and controlling automatic transmission shift points. Some manufacturers of highly sophisticated models will disclose computer codes and other details needed to repair their vehicles only to dealerships authorized to sell and service their vehicles.

Having access to additional practical information is particularly important in the 21st century, adds Mr. Villeneuve. “Cars are much more complex and computerized today, so automotive repair these days is very much an information game.”

In response to the need to know more to deal with today’s automobiles, organizations such as the Automotive Service Association in the U.S. and the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association in Canada are working to counteract the information deficit. The ASA, a U.S. trade group of some 12,000 independent auto-repair facilities, recently forged an agreement with the major automobile manufacturers. They promised to provide the same information and training material to independent garages as they do to their dealerships – next year. The official date is January 1, 2003. In Canada, the AAIA, with the help of such industry partners as Canadian Tire, is sponsoring the i-SHOP initiative. i-SHOP is an information-sharing network that, says the promotional literature, allows “computer-based equipment and applications in an automotive service centre to work as one seamlessly integrated system.” Currently, the “increased data quality and quantity” of i-SHOP is being touted for internal communication among various departments within individual garages.

An existing program that facilitates long-distance consultation is the Automotive Service Excellence Blue Seal program. This is how the technician in El Paso connected with Mr. Villeneuve, an ASE master technician. The qualification opens the door to international information-sharing, he says, adding that he regards the computer information source as “another tool in my tool box.”

“Organizations like ASE keep you in contact with other high-end professionals,” he points out. “Let’s say you run into a problem with a vehicle that you haven’t hit before. You post the problem and fire it off into the system. Other technicians respond on their PCs with ideas and schematics. It’s a thinking database, populated by humans.”

The ASE Blue Seal of Excellence Recognition Program, operated by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence out of Leesburg, Virginia, is a voluntary program “designed to recognize repair facilities that meet our standards,” says ASE publicist Kelly Tran. “At least 75 per cent of the facility’s technicians must be ASE certified with at least one certified in each area of service offered. The backbone of any shop is the competence of its technicians.”

Emphasizing that the object of the non-profit group is to “improve the quality of automotive service and repair through the voluntary testing and certification of automotive technicians,” she points out that certification is not indefinite. “To remain certified, those with ASE credentials must retest every five years.” To attain the ‘master technician’ designation, a technician must pass all industry-developed examinations at a high level. The ASE classification goes to individual technicians. A garage can qualify for the ASE Blue Seal only if the required proportion of its employees have passed the ASE tests. The garage pays a $185 U.S. annual registration fee, which covers the cost of a web posting and print promotional material.

Mr. Villeneuve, who graduated from Algonquin College in 1989 with a string of honours, speaks of ASE Blue Seal as “the name brand of auto mechanics” and applauds the regular training clinics and upgrading offered by the Institute. He also points out that the annual checks of ASE shops “raises the bar on automotive repair. For the customer, it means that there is less down-time for the car.”

This, he adds, is particularly important in a rural area without regular access to public transportation, such as his home community of Dunrobin, where people rely heavily on their vehicles.

“Saving time also saves customers money,” notes Mr. Villeneuve’s father and company vice-president, Leo Villeneuve. “That’s very important too. That’s why we added our recession action – a 20 per cent reduction on labour – to serve out customers better. ASE is another way of showing that we offer service with a difference.”

Currently, there are 1,016 ASE shops and some 431,750 ASE technicians across North America. In Canada, there are 35,000 ASE technicians and 595 of these are master technicians through the program. The six ASE shops in Canada are:

  • Euro-Asian Automotive Inc., Ottawa, Ontario

  • Can-Alignment and Brake Service, Milton, Ontario
  • Lambton Parts Auto Electric Ltd., Toronto, Ontario
  • Sargent’s Auto Electric, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
  • Touchette Autoelectro, Montreal, Quebec
  • Westshore Transmissions, Victoria, British Columbia

Ms. Tran anticipates that the number of Canadian members will grow substantially as the program becomes better known this side of the border.

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence is located at 101 Blue Seal Drive, S.E., Suite 101, Leesburg, Virginia 20175 USA. The telephone number is (703) 669-6600. The web site is

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