The industry is once again revisiting the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act (H.R. 2048), a piece of legislation that has been kicked around in one version or another for several years. The latest incarnation, which was introduced by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) on May 3, 2005, has not yet been re-introduced in the current 110th Congress, after dying at the end of the 109th Session, but it is being discussed again. And as often happens in the collision repair industry when legislation is discussed, opinions are polarized.
The key to the act is the fact that modern cars and light trucks contain advanced technology that monitors or controls virtually every function of the vehicle – brakes, steering, airbags, fuel delivery, ignition, lubrication, theft prevention, emission controls, tire pressure and more. Thus, repairers need full access to the information and tools necessary to accurately diagnose, repair or re-program these systems.
Having the proper information and equipment is necessary to ensure vehicle safety, performance and environmental compliance. Some argue vehicle manufacturers are making access to such vital information increasingly difficult and costly to obtain for independent repairers. Others believe the OEMs are providing plenty of repair data at reasonable costs.
The Right to Repair Act would require the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to promulgate rules and enforce regulations that ensure competition in the vehicle repair business. Plus, the bill would permit the FTC, car owners and independent repair facilities from taking legal action to ensure all information and tools are available and affordable.
Those for the act feel it’s needed because current automotive technology is blocking car owners and their auto technicians from being able to accurately diagnose and repair mechanical problems. Thus, later model cars could only be serviced and repaired at dealerships, making shopping around for price and location difficult.
Proponents say consumers are denied competitive prices and the right to choose where, how and when to have their vehicles repaired.
“The Right to Repair Act is critical to the future of the independent vehicle service industry because it requires that all repair professionals will have access to the same information and tools that are available to the new car dealers,” says Aaron Lowe, vice president, government affairs, Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). “This requirement would be enforceable by the FTC, and provides protection for legitimate car company trade secrets, unless manufacturers make that information available to dealers.”
Other supporters of the bill include the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers (AASP), Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association (APRA), Automotive Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA), Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), National Grange, Service Station Dealers Association (SSDA), Tire Industry Association (TIA), National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), American Automobile Association (AAA) and The 60 Plus Association.
“The Right to Repair Act is obviously good for consumers because it gives them choices in who repairs their vehicles,” says Pat Andersen, president, AASP. “It’s also good for independent auto repair businesses because it keeps the playing field level. If RTR passes then manufacturers would no longer be allowed to stack the deck against independent repair shops by refusing to sell tools and information to anyone but new car dealerships.”
Those for the act feel the bill ensures the future of the independent vehicle aftermarket. Car companies claim that all of the information is available, but, according to Lowe, a survey of repair shops performed by Opinion Research Inc. found that some data is missing from information provided by vehicle manufacturers. The study also found that independent shops lose about 5.6 percent in productivity due to information or tools not being available, translating into a $5.8 billion per year loss of revenue.
“Computers now impact virtually every system of the vehicle, including airbags,” says Lowe. “Body shops that attempt to complete repairs on late-model vehicles often run into the same problems experienced by mechanical shops. They don’t have the information to program on-board computers so safety systems work properly.”
AASP’s Andersen adds, “Both collision and mechanical repair shops rely on tool and information availability for their livelihoods. Even collision repair shops that sublet their mechanical and electronic repairs would like a choice in who does the work for them. The RTR legislation is necessary for us to have access to everything that new car dealers have access to, and to have that access permanently.”
Despite the supporters, there remains stout opposition. The Automotive Service Association (ASA), Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) and National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) are against the act.
“ASA opposes Right to Repair because we believe that the service information issue has been addressed through an industry effort,” says Bob Redding, ASA Washington representative. “The National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), comprised of all segments of the automotive industry, is a formal industry working group that addresses any gaps in service, tool or training information.”
The ASA says it’s pleased with the progress made by the NASTF, and does not believe legislation is necessary to resolve service information problems. The FTC reported at a hearing before the U.S. Congress that there were virtually no complaints filed with the FTC on this issue, according to Redding.
Opponents disagree that modern vehicle technology is limiting consumers’ choice.
“Consumers continue to have the choice of where to get their vehicles serviced and repaired, with independent shops accounting for 70 to 80 percent of non-warranty service,” says John Cabaniss, director for environment and energy, AIAM.
He goes on to state that independent shops continue to provide quality services at competitive prices, and Internet and E-commerce technologies are being used to provide these shops with the latest technical information faster and cheaper than ever before. Advances in automotive technology will continue to challenge all technicians and shop owners to make improvements and investments in their businesses to keep pace.
Cabaniss also states that automakers are doing all they reasonably can to make service information, training materials and factory tools available to independent shops.
“All automakers have established service Web sites with information available 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” says Cabaniss. “Is every manufacturer’s information perfect? Of course not. There are literally millions of data-points that need to be accessible, and, from time-to-time, something will fall through the cracks. Like any complex data network, improvements are continually being made to benefit dealers and independent shops alike. Automakers are always open to constructive feedback.”
He also adds that most automaker service Web sites are accessible for a period of 24 to 72 hours for $10 to $20, and that frequent users have the option for longer subscriptions. He feels the small short-term access cost is a fraction of most auto repair bills and is well worth the cost.
Some proponents of the Act feel the voluntary approach of ensuring information availability provides no enforcement to ensure continued good faith on the part of automakers. But, according to Cabaniss, the continued good faith of automakers is ensured because the marketplace requires it – automakers make sure their customers can get their vehicles repaired at the shop of their choice.
“Automakers and independent aftermarket shops are partners in ensuring customer satisfaction,” says Cabaniss. “Consumer surveys, such as the J.D. Power surveys, are increasingly evaluating customer concerns about serviceability. Automakers cannot afford any bad press that would result in not providing full support to customers, dealers and independent shops for service technology.”
Many opponents feel the act is just out-and-out wrong.
“The bill is simply an effort by large aftermarket parts manufacturers to use the federal government to force automobile manufacturers to surrender their proprietary information to the automobiles and trucks that they designed, manufactured, marketed and sold,” says Bailey Wood, director, legislative affairs and communications, NADA.
NADA says an industry solution has already been achieved to provide access to service information and diagnostic tools for all parties in the automotive repair business, and is pleased with the agreement between automobile manufacturers and ASA that was signed in 2002, which keeps independent repairers and franchised dealers on a level playing field with regard to access to service information and tools.
The agreement and the NASTF are sufficient to resolve any information issues that may arise, and are preferable to a government-mandated and controlled process, says Wood.
“Any government action has the potential to greatly complicate the private sector’s efforts to provide the necessary information to service providers,” he says.
Additionally, the legislation could threaten new lawsuits, based on potentially erroneous findings that there is restriction of access to information, allowing a trial lawyer bonanza under state deceptive trade practice statutes, says Wood. He also feels that giving large parts distributors the opportunity to seek the intellectual property of manufacturers could lead to them building knockoff parts overseas.
“Forcing manufacturers to surrender proprietary parts information under the pretext that the information is necessary to service and repair vehicles will have a profound effect on the auto industry,” says Wood. “Manufacturers may invest less in new technologies knowing that they will have to immediately turn over any blueprints to this new federal regime. This may significantly reduce a manufacturer’s financial incentive to improve on its current products.”
Opponents also feel that the bill would create a bureaucratic nightmare for repair shop owners, because it would create a new federal entity to deal with. Plus, opponents say, it would create an adversarial working relationship for independents and automakers. Instead of an industry sharing information, independent repairers would have to go to a federal agency or the courts to close any gaps in information.
This federal agency has no experience in automotive repair service information, tools or training, say opponents.
“The legislation would eliminate an industry process for obtaining service information, tool information and training through the NASTF,” says ASA’s Redding. “ASA believes this legislation will have a negative impact on collision shops.”
Some opponents have already dismissed Right to Repair, claiming it won’t see the light of day again.
“With the change in the balance of power in Washington, it is unlikely that any bill, if introduced, will see any legislative action,” says Wood. “The new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell (D-Mich.), has already stated that he is against such a bill. Any effort by the bill’s original sponsor, Rep. Barton, will be met with strong opposition by Chairman Dingell, thus reducing the likelihood that so-called ‘Right to Repair’ legislation will ever come up for a vote in committee.”