Why you should care
Because this might be the end of dodgy deals and fake prices.
It’s hard to imagine mechanic Chris Maranon toiling in a dungeon. Smiling comes easily to him, even when he’s inspecting the engine in my ancient car down in the bowels of the parking garage of my San Francisco apartment building. The engine isn’t the only problem: Due to lack of use, the VW’s battery is dead. Local garages quoted $460-plus just for towing the Volkswagen Golf and replacing its corroded juice box. Instead, I opted for an on-demand mechanic, ordering Maranon’s house call on an app for a flat $273.30.
Maranon’s pickup, which is parked next to my rust bucket, is filled with his tools and — bonus! — two supercute dogs with lolling tongues. Two years ago, the 38-year-old’s workday was considerably longer and darker. As Maranon eases out the battery, he cheerfully describes 10 years of crazy hours at dungeon-like car dealerships where he spent half his time waiting for customers. Since he was paid hourly per job, no clients meant no cash. Today, he sets his own hours as an employee of YourMechanic, a mobile on-demand automotive-repair company that launched in 2012.
People don’t know about cars. With [on-demand mechanics] there’s no upselling and no haggling. You get a fair price.
Abhas Art Agrawal, founder, YourMechanic
People are pretty much over the “Uber for X” economy these days, but demand for one-click mechanics is booming, both domestically and internationally. The past 14 months have seen startups Fiix, Wrench and oToBOTS open in Ontario, Seattle and Illinois. Then there’s ClickMechanic in England, getTOD in Cape Town, Steero in India and Yangche Diandian in China, to name a few. And investors are getting onboard: San Francisco–based YourMechanic has raised $32 million to date, and Chinese companies Kalading and Mocar both raised a $10 million Series A round in 2015. Top prize goes to Yangche Diandian, whose 2015 Series C round brought their investment total to $75 million. All the VC drooling is understandable: The North American auto-repair market alone is valued at $63 billion, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.
Maranon discovered YourMechanic through a Craigslist ad, and after three months of working part-time, he dumped the dealership gig and signed up for full-time work. Customers register online or through the app, create a work order and get paired with the closest available mechanic. (You can also request a mechanic by name.) People usually schedule appointments 24 to 48 hours in advance, but mechanics can offer same-day service if they have the parts on hand. If Maranon doesn’t have what he needs in stock, he picks up the materials from a partner garage before heading out to a job.
In most cases, a quote is provided in advance, and the repairs come with a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty (whichever comes first) and a $1 million liability policy. Maranon says about a third of his clients watch him work — at garages, customers don’t see what’s being done and don’t always get what they pay for, according to a 2014 undercover investigation by ABC New’s 20/20. Not surprisingly, a recent AAA survey found that 73 percent of customers feel they’re overcharged, and 64 percent have had a negative auto-repair experience. In that mistrustful environment, the appeal of fixed-price, tip-free mobile mechanics is a no-brainer.
Most jobs are completed at customers’ houses or offices; only a few major repairs, such as an engine overhaul, require a garage bay. Think maintenance, not major fixes or roadside assistance. I ended up a happy customer, and YourMechanic’s overall Yelp rating is four stars, but complaints about last-minute cancellations, inexperience and lack of tools are scattered among the reviews. Since there are no dealer fees, Maranon earns more (about $40 an hour), and customers enjoy savings of around 30 percent.
That’s the reason Kuruvilla Simon started oToBOTS, a Chicago-based YourMechanic competitor, in 2015. The former IT executive was frustrated by car mechanics calling all the shots in terms of pricing and schedules. When a Craigslist mechanic who had just installed a faulty battery in his car began dodging his calls, Simon decided enough was enough. Now, oToBOTS (the name is derived from Transformers and the Indonesian word for car, oto) is in Chicago, Dallas, Houston and California.
But does it make business sense to move into a gas-guzzler space that’s going electric? The short answer: yes. The world may talk green, but by 2040, two-thirds of all vehicles still will be muscled along by gas and diesel engines. YourMechanic founder Abhas Art Agrawal certainly isn’t concerned that technological developments will put him out of business. “Even self-driving cars need maintenance!” he tells OZY forcefully. “If Uber [purchases a fleet of autonomous cars], we can help maintain those cars.” Shorter term, the research firm IHS forecasts a 15 percent increase in 12-year-old cars by 2019. Aging cars mean plenty of work for mobile grease monkeys.
It all sounds idyllic: better rates and service and trust for all. But before we skip into the sunset, remember that these are startups, and as more companies enter the market, initial low prices might adjust. And Kerry Wu, tech analyst for CB Insights, notes that “many investors have grown more cautious within the on-demand space” and are shifting their attention to autonomous driving and its related infrastructure.
But so far, most drivers and owners say the benefits far outweigh any concerns — and oToBOTS and YourMechanic have an A and A+ rating, respectively, by the Better Business Bureau. “People don’t know about cars,” says Agrawal. “With us there’s no upselling and no haggling. You get a fair price.” With respect, I’m drinking that Kool-Aid — but I’m watching to make sure nobody tops up my battery with it.