Road testing is a skill, or at least it should be. As with almost any other task in the automotive aftermarket, some people are better at road testing than others. Many perceive road testing to be an overall simple no-brainer type of operation, so it’s something that is often skipped. You should really give it its due.

I once visited a shop in Iowa that had an individual who was the third-highest-paid individual in the whole company. His sole job was the pre- and post-testing of repair functions. He was so skillful and had such a good feel that he could tell shift points and other vehicle malfunctions by simply performing a regimented road test. Note that this was in the days prior to scan tools being hooked up and driving cars, but the fact is that this man made the shop and himself a lot of money. When the technicians got a car that he had road tested, along with his comments of suggested areas to check for proposed problems, they had great faith in him. Likewise, after they finished repairing it, he would again road test the vehicle, and if it passed his scrutiny, the repair was, as deemed on paper, correctly done.

There are some basic rules for road testing. Common sense is No. 1. You are not going to take vehicles out for a regimented extended road test during an ice storm, in snowy, rainy fog or under other hazardous driving conditions, but when you can do a road test, do a road test. Whenever possible, do the road test on the same route or roads. This helps you to establish what a vehicle should feel like. It helps you to establish a known condition for the roads, whether there is a crown in the road causing a suspected alignment pull, etc.

Customers must realize if they are waiting for a vehicle that is being road tested, it isn’t just a quick spin around the block. A proper road test, from the time a technician is handed the ticket to the time he has come back and written his analysis can easily take 10 or 15 minutes. Customers sometimes don’t seem to understand that. They wonder what is taking so long. When a car is road tested, it is probably being tested for an obvious condition such as a transmission shutter on uphill starts, brake pulls under hard or moderate braking, etc., but a road test should be a general, overall vehicle inspection as well. Don’t only test for the stated conditions. 

The question now is, “Should you road test for free?” This comes down to whether you perform other diagnostic services for free. If you wish to road test for free, list it as an item on the work order, list the amount normally charged, but then list it as a “no-charge” courtesy item or use some other notation that conveys to the customer the true value of the service performed.

Before a vehicle is road tested and before writing up a service ticket you must be something of a detective in trying to find out as much information as possible as to why the customer believes there is a problem with the vehicle. It might be a problem that occurs when cold starting in the morning so realize that the car coming into your shop in the afternoon when it’s 92° may be a factor. A shop owner recently made an appointment for a car with the stated condition of vibration over 67 mph. He planned to have his road-test person take the car out to confirm the condition. The vehicle showed up on the back end of a wrecker with some damage to the right front fender and inner fender liner. Upon inspection it was noted that the tread had completely peeled off the right front tire and whipped around while still partially attached, damaging some of the sheet metal on the car. It may be safe to assume that this was the cause of the vibration problem the customer was coming in for, but after installing new tires on the car, it was not immediately released to him with the bill and an expectation of payment. Instead, the vehicle was taken for a road test to determine that no shake condition was present. As it turned out, there was no shake in the vehicle at the speed stated by the customer. It can be assumed that the shake was caused by the tire separation that was very close to becoming a catastrophic condition.

What would have happened if the shop had been road testing the car at 67 mph and the tire decided to separate at that moment? Who would be responsible for damage to the vehicle? You know and I know the correct answer, but knowing the answer and having a customer accept it can lead to some very interesting discussions. You should clearly state in your policy who has liability and under what conditions a road test will be performed. For instance, if a vehicle owner has no car insurance, is it wise to road test his vehicle? The answer is “No.”

Put road testing into your shop’s operating procedure like you do various other functions such as no-charge tire rotation during an oil change, etc., but give it the consideration it deserves. Road testing is a serious diagnostic tool if properly applied. Although it may seem superficial, it may really solve more problems and help you become more profitable and service oriented.