Right to Repair Act Brewing in the Bay State
Massachusetts is fighting a quiet battle with automakers over servicing costs, but it could ignite a nationwide struggle.
Ever since Los Angeles set up its own anti-smog regulations in the 1970s, automakers have fought against California’s strict emissions standards -- and continually lost. California, after all, was the reason the diesel passenger-car market thinned to almost nothing in the latter part of the 1990s and 2000s. The state's credit-swapping system for zero-emissions vehicles was the only real reason the first hybrids, natural-gas vehicles and electric cars got built and sold -- and often, it’s still the only place where they’re sold.
The state has clashed with and, more often than not, dictated federal policy toward climate change and greenhouse gases. Today’s EV and hybrid owners living in the 17 states that adopted laws from the California Air Resources Board enjoy longer battery warranties than those in other states, and that’s just one example. Basically, whenever California calls for yet another emissions law, automakers have learned to put their hands up immediately in surrender. The hard lesson: If you can’t sell cars in California, you might as well give up on the entire United States.
But for the past few years, automakers have been quietly battling with another liberal-minded state they believe will threaten their business. This time, it’s not about the environment. It’s a fight over hard cash that could lead into a bitter, nationwide struggle over protected interests.
Massachusetts is leading the charge over the “right to repair,” a bill that would require automakers to supply all their diagnostic and service equipment that dealers use, including software and manufacturer-specific code-scanners, to independent mechanics and store chains such as AutoZone. Some manufacturers offer all of their information, while others limit who gets access to what. For certain minor repairs -- especially involving OBD computers and the myriad electronic sensors in today's cars -- you can only head to a dealership.
The goal is to reduce repair costs by allowing car owners to choose any shop for maintenance. It’s supposed to level the competition and open the flow of service information to all qualified shops in the state. Automakers say that all of their service information is readily available and that if such a bill passes, random companies (by this they mean China) will be able to resell copyright-protected parts and hack into their proprietary software. Dealers hate the very idea of lowering fees and losing any part of their service operations, which make up the bulk of their profits.
Who’s right? Read the short bill, which explicitly protects trade secrets by authority of the attorney general. Here’s what Art Kinsman, spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition -- a group of about 1,000 independent repair shops and mechanics -- said recently to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune:
"Our proposal says that by 2015 there will be a universal interface with access to car manufacturers' information, either in the cloud or on a website," he said. "The goal is to make it so independent shops can fix cars. They get a lot of information, but not always the same information."
And here’s what Dan Gage of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said to the newspaper:
"They say, 'Oh, we don't want blueprints or diagrams, we just want to know how to fix the cars,'" Gage said. "We say, 'If you subscribe to an auto manufacturer's website, you can get all that information.'"
The bill passed through the Massachusetts Senate last month, just as it did in 2010 before it was defeated in the House of Representatives. But even if it’s shot down again, the Right to Repair Coalition says it has plenty of signatures to force a ballot question during the November presidential election. Gov. Deval Patrick has promised to sign the legislation. With the economy a central issue and the continual sour aftertaste of the multibillion-dollar bailouts to General Motors and Chrysler, the timing may be enough to force an all-out battle at the federal level.
There is, in fact, a similar bill with 50 co-sponsors that was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. It hasn’t gotten nearly the attention of the bill in Massachusetts --no surprise there, as bills often languish and die slow deaths in Congress. But for one state -- and a small state at that -- to be picking fights with major automakers and hundreds of tax-paying small businesses (i.e., the dealers), it’s a bold move.
What do you think? Should automakers have to comply and make all of their online tools available without restriction? Is it wrong that your local dealer wants the exclusive rights to reset your warning lights? Could this open up mass fraud and copyright infringements, as the automakers suggest?
One thing is for sure. Massachusetts, like California, is hard as nails when it comes to getting what it wants. Remember that Bay Staters passed both gay marriage and the even more controversial state health-care system into law not too long ago, so don’t be surprised if your state ends up going bumper-to-bumper with a major car company.
If this passes, the auto companies can take another route and that is to extend the warranties and bundle in maintenance on their cars to encourage people to use their service department. It just means building that into the price of the cars. If the whole industry adopts that approach, and independent mechanic might find that he'll only be working on cars that are over 5 years old because all the rest will be going back to the dealers for "free" repairs and maintenance.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the independent mechanics are kicking a big hornet's nest. They better be careful what the wish for.
I could care less considering that no mechanic (dealership, independent or otherwise) has ever touched any car or truck I have ever owned other then for recalls.
I love listening to people complain about the cost of auto maintenance while I do it myself for a fraction of the cost.
Okay, as a former service adviser, I'll admit that the 'back end' is a money generator for the dealership HOWEVER, no one takes into account the money that the dealership spends sending their techs to factory training every time a new model becomes available. PLUS, the dealer has to pay for the transportation and lodging for each tech or adviser. Finally, the dealership does not get the software or the special service tools free just because of their affiliation. Some people would fall over if they saw some of the prices charged for this type of information that 'Auto Zone' is looking for a free pass on.
You are paying a premium just as you would by going to see a specialist for a medical problem. Can a regular MD do a general diagnosis? Sure! Can he order the proper test to get to the source of the problem? Quite unlikely in this day and age.
So give these guys a break. As long as the price is fair and reasonable, there is no harm in patronizing the dealer over the shade tree mechanic. Hell, I took my 350z to an oil change franchise and had a major leak to clean up afterwards. You think I'm going to let them touch a computer related issue if they can't even change the oil correctly?
Of course they should. Less chance they have at exercising their greed, the better. Official dealership owners are millionaires while the small independent dealers are getting the shaft because they do not have the corporate backing which any licensed dealership enjoys.
Dealership owners: you can do without a few million dollars; you have plenty. Do not be greedy - if you continue on this path, the rewards will come back with a vengeance.
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