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The Right to Repair

Just how accessible is repair information these days and is legislation still needed to ensure a level playing field?

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I remember a time when dwell angle, timing and spark plug gap were the most requested specs for a vehicle. 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2 was the only firing order I cared about, and high-octane gas was 33 cents per gallon.

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Now before you ask if I have any leftover Civil War uniforms, it was the 1960s (not the 1860s).

Detroit was on a big-block binge, and America was reeling from the British invasion. The California sound of the Beach Boys not only brought music, but greatly intensified the hot rod craze for an entire generation of youngsters. And with that horsepower-fueled interest came the need for more information – how to go faster, how to go straighter and how to stop this motor-crazed beast.

Meanwhile, grease monkeys were busy trying to keep up with changes to the family sedan and station wagon. If you worked for a new car dealer, you had access to factory service bulletins and new-model introduction classes sponsored by the manufacturer.

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With your dwell-tach, timing light and continuity tester, you were the man! You could fix anything Detroit dished out.

Many of these dealer mechanics honed their craft at the local drag strip every weekend. And the best at their craft made field improvements – just because they could.

If you were a bodyman, you had separate manuals that detailed body, frame and trim information. For GM dealers, there were separate body manuals published by the Fisher Body group. Ford lumped the Ford and Mercury body information together.

This is the period that the first President Bush called a “kinder and gentler” time.

Fast-forward to 2004: A modern vehicle can have as much computing power as a desktop computer. Dozens of sensors communicate critical information at light speed and coddle the American consumer in the manner in which he’s become accustomed. It’s truly marvelous when it all works, but when things go wrong, what about the poor technician? Especially the poor technician working at an independent collision repair facility and not a dealership shop?

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For the average auto repair business today, data and vehicle repair information have become a measurable expense and an absolute necessity. The advent of computerization into design, construction and operation of vehicle systems has created an insatiable demand for information to effect repairs on the most complex automobiles ever offered.

Because information can make or break your business, let’s take a look at the state of information today.

Information Availability

On Sept. 20, 2002, it was announced that the Automotive Service Association (ASA), the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) had reached a voluntary agreement with the OEMs that would make tools, information and training available to independent repairers and aftermarket tool manufacturers.

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Said ASA’s Washington, D.C. representative Bob Redding at the time of the announcement: “You have collision repairers today who’ve gotten so used to taking that car – for whatever technical reason because they don’t have the information – back to the dealer. This agreement, over time, will eliminate that need.”

It also, according to these three associations, eliminated the need for The Motor Vehicle Owner’s Right to Repair Act (H.R. 2735) – legislation that ASA had helped to draft and had been lobbying for up until the voluntary agreement was reached.

“We feel very strongly that we have everything in this agreement that we’ll need,” said Redding in 2002.

This change of heart, however, wasn’t well-received by some in industry, who were of the opinion that car manufacturers couldn’t be trusted and that legislation was the answer.

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Still, the voluntary agreement went forward as planned, and by April 2003, the OEMs had launched Web sites covering all systems – emissions, safety, comfort and convenience.

This is where the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) came in. NASTF is a cooperative effort among the automotive service industry, the equipment and tool industry, and automotive manufacturers to ensure that automotive service professionals have the information, training and tools needed to properly diagnose and repair today’s high tech vehicles.

At the NASTF Web site, repairers can go to the OE Service Information Matrix, which lists vehicle manufacturers alphabetically and shows how to access service information and tools and equipment required to do the job.

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But expect to pay for any required information. There’s a charge for manuals and variable charges (by manufacturer) for access to information. Some manufacturers offer 24-hour, three-day, monthly or even annual access charges to get the information. Some, like Volkswagen, charge by the page.

So how’s this voluntary agreement going?

“We do feel very strongly that it’s working,” says Redding. “… We are very pleased with the agreement, and we’ve made a lot of progress with it. All the companies signed it except one (Porsche), and they’ve been working with us to make sure we are getting everything we need.”

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Redding goes on to explain why ASA attempted to reach a voluntary agreement and then pulled their support for the legislation.

“… We were involved … getting legislation introduced, we assisted in drafting the bill and we supported the bill. We were one of two organizations involved in that period. We flew in over 100 repairers and had … meetings on Capitol Hill seeking co-sponsors. During that period, July 2002, there was a hearing with the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection.

“… We were challenged by the committee before, during and after the hearing to try to get a voluntary agreement that did not require legislative action. If we were unable to do that or if a voluntary agreement failed, then they would address it with legislation in some form. …

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“One critical piece here was timing. In the summer of 2002, we felt that we (our member shops) were losing a significant number of service orders to new car dealers. It was important that that trend did not continue or even worse, escalate. And it would have. We needed an immediate solution. We couldn’t wait for a law in five to 10 years. We had members on the mechanical side who would have gone out of business waiting.”

Is Legislation Still Needed?

As of early 2004, The Motor Vehicle Owner’s Right to Repair Act (H.R. 2735) – the legislation that ASA helped to draft but no longer supports -is still pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, and companion legislation, S.B. 2138, is pending in the U.S. Senate.

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“We support the legislative remedy to keep all the parties who have an interest in the flow of information honest,” says Aaron Lowe, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). “While the voluntary agreement … is a step forward, the long history of tension surrounding the flow of information suggests that legislation might be in the best interest of the consumer.

“Technology must be available to the consumer who invested in the vehicle.”

Other industry associations agree, but are of the opinion that H.R. 2735 goes too far and is no longer necessary with the voluntary agreement in place.

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“While the stated goal of H.R. 2735 is one we share – to ensure that motorists can get their vehicles serviced wherever they choose – the bill goes well beyond this goal to jeopardize the intellectual property rights of automakers and to grant an unprecedented competitive opportunity to aftermarket parts manufacturers,” wrote ASA, AIAM and AAM in a recent letter sent to all U.S. representatives explaining their opposition to H.R. 2735.

” … The proposed legislation could force the release of proprietary information that is unrelated to vehicle repair, despite claims to the contrary, and could result in irreparable harm to the computer systems that control motor vehicle emissions and safety. …

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“In addition, with access to automaker proprietary information, aftermarket parts manufacturers could short circuit the historical and customary practice of reverse engineering replacement parts for aftermarket use. This ‘reverse engineering’ requirement helps level the playing field between automakers – who invest enormous resources in the design, testing, and certification of parts – and aftermarket parts makers, who would gain a significant competitive advantage by not having to invest in the ‘reverse engineering.’ “

Redding elaborates: “This is a big deal to the automakers,” he says. “We don’t make parts. We represent independent repairers – collision and mechanical. So making the parts is not critical to us. What is important is that we have a healthy, competitive marketplace.

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“We believe this [voluntary] agreement, coupled with the EPA emission service information regulation of 2003, creates a perfect partnership to assure that the industry gets what it needs to stay competitive.”

Are You Getting What You Need?

Changes in vehicle design and operation that came as a result of federal legislation to improve safety and to clean up emissions have created a need for legislation that will ensure that consumers can continue to have a choice in who repairs their vehicles and be assured that their repairer of choice will have access to the latest information and tools to do the job.

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It’s really quite remarkable that technology and the advance of Internet communications have leveled the playing field so that a small, independent repair facility has virtually instantaneous access to the same repair information as the biggest mega-dealer. No more waiting three weeks for the factory repair manual to be shipped!

It’s also fair to mention that access to repair information is only one part of the puzzle that represents a quality, responsible repair to the consumer. Quality tools, a commitment to training, adherence to ethical business practices, and participation in industry testing and certification are equally desirable components that will help the vehicle owner to make an informed repair decision.

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As for the debate over whether or not legislation is needed, that’s for you to decide. Is the voluntary agreement working?

“We need collision repairers to focus on this [voluntary] agreement,” says Redding. “The volume of complaints has been primarily mechanical. If collision shops are having problems, tell us. We need to know.”

Writer Michael Regan worked on the paint side of the collision repair industry for 36 years and lives in Northeast Ohio. These days, he can be found teaching cooking classes, playing guitar and piano and baking some of the best cakes that money can buy. You can contact him at [email protected]

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