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New app jump-starts auto repair search

Cambridge’s Openbay helps car owners solicit competitive bids

Openbay, a pilot program for now, is free to users.

Openbay, a pilot program for now, is free to users.

It is one of those questions that most car owners eventually ask: Do you know a good mechanic?

Now, a Cambridge start-up can answer for you.

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Openbay Corp. on Monday launched a mobile app and a website where car owners can solicit competitive bids for repairs and check Yelp-like ratings of the shop or dealership they are considering. They will be able to book an appointment and pay for it all within the app.

It is a bit like the OpenTable system for restaurant reservations, but for the auto repair business, said Rob Infantino, the company’s chief executive.

In an era when smartphones can be used to order takeout food, book flights, and hire cabs, it is surprising there had not been anything that easily combines everything about the car repair process into one app.

“I hear that all the time,” said Infantino, a serial technology entrepreneur from Boston who came up with the idea after having a bad car-repair experience.

“I’m a car nut and I brought one of my cars in for a wheel alignment and I got handed an estimate for over $4,000,” he said. “I went and found someone else to do the work.”

When he started looking around for an all-in-one service that reviews repair shops and connects drivers directly with mechanics and shops, he did not find anything that did exactly what he wanted — “which is to find trustworthy auto-repair shops and get cars serviced at a good value,” Infantino said.

Over the past few months, Openbay has been available as a pilot program, with about 600 car owners and more than 400 service providers. It is free to users but charges service providers 10 percent of the overall repair bill when they get a customer through the company.

“It’s a little high but I’m getting a brand-new customer,” said Barry Steinberg, president of Direct Tire and Auto Service and an early Openbay adopter. “I’m looking at this more like that’s advertising. This is all new business for me.”

Since many car owners are already using the Web to find reviews of repair shops, and many already carry around a smartphone wherever they travel, it just makes sense to put the entire process into an app, Steinberg said.

“It’s a good way for techie people to be able to find a source for auto repair, and make the decision on their own,” he said. “Consumers today want it to be as seamless as possible.’’

When Openbay users request a service quote through its mobile app or website, nearby service centers that subscribe are alerted. Those shops can then submit an estimate for the work, and the car owner can either accept the bid or look elsewhere. The entire transaction is handled through Openbay.

Users are also able to filter out repair shops based on location or select those that offer wireless Internet service or have rental cars available.

Openbay has attracted backing from some of the biggest names in technology. It received seed investment from Google Ventures, the venture capital wing of the search giant, along with Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture firm known for backing Skype and Facebook.

Openbay would not disclose the amount that it has raised from investors.

The start-up attracted Google Venture’s eye because it was trying to bring the power of the Web to the often arduous process of car repair in a way that has not been done, said Rich Miner, a general partner with the fund based in Cambridge.

“The market is huge. Look at the number of automobiles on the road,” said Miner, who has used the service himself to find a garage that has Wi-Fi.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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