Apr 1, 2015 · 4 minutes

Car maintenance, and the costs associated with auto care, is a pain point and often a total mystery for many car owners. It is also one of the last industries where the consumer has traditionally had no power over negotiations, especially once a car is in an auto repair shop.

This morning at the New York International Auto Show, auto repair marketplace startup Openbay unveiled a new product called OpenbayConnect to give consumers more power in the process of getting work done on their cars. The new device, which Openbay founder and chief executive Rob Infantino says can be installed by anyone, automatically connects a car’s computer system to diagnose problems and find a local repair shop to fix the issue through the company’s automated service recommendation engine.

As I can personally attest, Openbay’s product works in the way it’s supposed to: It gives consumers leverage they’ve never had before when delving into the often nefarious world of car repairs.

Recently, I tried the service (without disclosing I was a journalist) because my Subaru [insert joke here] was making noises that can only be likened to those made by a military tank. So, being somewhat lazy, I decided to just bring it to the nearby Subaru dealership for work.

Huge mistake.

By mid-morning, the service center at the dealership had estimated that my car needed $2400 of repairs, almost $1000 of which was to fix all four brakes, which I was told were too worn out to drive on. I had the shop do only the work necessary to make the noise disappear and figured I could get the brakes done for a more reasonable price somewhere else. (Luckily I had done a stint as a mechanics assistant as a kid and knew that the cost I was being quoted for just the brake pads was hugely inflated.)

So, having covered Openbay when they raised money from Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz*, I was somewhat familiar with the company. However, I had never used the app, maybe rushing to judgement that there was no way it could possibly fix the broken auto repair process and would further add a level of anxiety to an already miserable experience.

But I decided to give the service a try, and after logging in to the Openbay website (it also has a mobile app), giving my car details, and explaining, as best as I could, my problem, I received about ten offers from area repair shops to do the service. Openbay’s listings gave the estimates from each shop and also included customer ratings from those who’ve used the service, as well as Yelp and Google reviews.

After figuring out the best reviewed and most affordable option. I brought my car in, and had the brakes fixed for around $350, which is more than 60 percent less than the price estimated by the dealership for the same work. Another interesting feature of Openbay is that you don’t pay for the service directly to the auto repair shop. Payment can only occur through the application, which is a way of ensuring that customers don’t get quoted one price and then are billed something different.

OpenbayConnect further automates this process by diagnosing the problem through a car’s computer system - something I was charged about $70 for at the Subaru dealership - and making the auto repair shops vie for a customer’s business by offering the best deal. The company will be shipping the product to early adopters throughout the spring, but has been testing the device with a few unnamed partners with access to large fleets of cars for a few months now. For a limited amount of time, the OpenbayConnect devices will be free and won't cost users any data costs or activation fees. Eventually, the company will sell the connected diagnosis components through its partners.

One person who believes deeply in Openbay’s mission is Google Ventures partner and Android inventor Rich Miner, who, from what I hear, is very bullish on the company. "Google Ventures looks to invest in companies that disrupt traditional markets" Miner said in a statement. “Openbay's app solves the broken auto repair process in a few clicks, making automotive repair easier for drivers and auto shops alike,” he added.

So what is in it for the repair shops? Those who opt in to the service get access to an untapped market of new potential customers and they also get payment services that they may not have been able to offer in the past, such as the option for customers to pay by Apple Pay. Additionally, making the pricing more transparent and fair for customers could do wonders for the public's perception of the repair industry. Auto repair shops don't have to pay anything to be a part of the Openbay platform, but are charged a small fee if a user selects the garage for maintenance through the app or Website.

One specific target of OpenbayConnect is auto service customers who don't know very much about their vehicles, see a check engine light go on, and immediately call a auto shop or dealer. Often, that customer will pay just to have their computer system checked. Many times, the problem could be as simple as low tire pressure or a loose gas cap. The automated OpenbayConnect system can diagnose exactly what the problem is and whether it warrants more extensive service, all without having to get mechanics involved.

"This is a first-of-its-kind in the automotive space, period," said CEO Infantino. "It's going to rock the auto industry."

[photo via Seattle Municipal Archives]

  • [Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen and Jeff Jordan are personal investors in Pando]