DETROIT-Like two heavyweight boxers awaiting the judges' decision, automakers and aftermarket associations are looking to the Environmental Protection agency to declare a winner in the fight over who gets to reprogram engine control computers. The stakes are high:
Automakers say only franchised new-car dealers should have the ability to reprogram the computers. Such a restriction would prevent others from installing new calibrations that would cause vehicles to exceed emissions limits. And it would protect dealers' investments in their franchises.
Aftermarket groups claim that without everyone having the reprogramming ability, new-car dealers would have a virtual monopoly on service, destroying a $200 billion industry.
A ruling was expected by the end of 1993, according to Todd Sherwood, an engineer for the Certification division of the EPA in Ann Arbor, Mich. But no matter what the EPA decides, the issue is virtually certain to end up in the courts.
The battle is a byproduct of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which mandated that a new generation of emission controls and on-board diagnostics-known as OBD II-be installed on vehicles by the 1996 model year.
Current on-board diagnostic systems primarily help technicians solve driveability problems; OBD II systems must monitor the entire emissions control system.
When a problem is detected, the system will store a trouble code in its memory and turn on an indicator light on the dashboard. Under more stringent programs to monitor pollution, vehicles cannot be registered until all emission problems are repaired and the trouble codes cleared.
OBD II mandates that diagnostic connectors, trouble codes and terminology be standardized to make repairs easier, and that automakers provide repair information to the aftermarket.
To meet the OBD II provisions, automakers are switching to more powerful, faster engine control computers with reprogrammable memory chips, called EEPROMs, to add monitoring sensors in the engine compartment.
But the new computers also contain special electronic security measures to ensure that only service tools in dealerships can reprogram the chips. That's a blow below the belt, according to aftermarket service groups.
Both sides claim to have the law on their side. In rules published last February establishing OBD II, the EPA required automakers to safeguard the on-board diagnostic computers from tampering.
But it did not spell out which repair information automakers had to give the repair industry to service the on-board diagnostics system-that's the ruling due soon from the EPA.
Automakers say the only way they can guarantee their anti-tampering provisions are effective is to limit them to their dealers. Any wider availability of reprogramming opens the door to unauthorized calibrations, which would make the automakers liable for emissions recalls.
Furthermore, automakers say, independent repair shops don't need the ability to reprogram the computers to repair the system.
``The aftermarket groups feel that reprogramming will be the lifeblood of repairing cars in the future,'' said Ron Smisek, director of General Motors Corp.'s Service Technology Group product engineering. ``But there are so few reprogramming events required, it's really making a mountain out of a molehill.''
Installing new chips, or reprogramming chips, is most often used to solve driveability problems such as engine hesitation or stalling, Mr. Smisek said. New chips are used to correct 5 percent to 8 percent of driveability problems, he added.
``Most driveability problems are corrected during the warranty period,'' Mr. Smisek said, ``and contrary to what the aftermarket says, most owners go back to the dealer for service during the warranty period.''
Currently, if an independent shop needs to install a new computer chip to make a repair, it buys the chip from a new-car dealership.
If an independent shop needs a new calibration for an OBD II system, it can remove the engine control computer from the vehicle and take it to a dealership for reprogramming, or the new program can be stored in a hand-held scan tool and taken to the repair shop by the dealer.
Automakers say independent shops will get better, more powerful repair tools because of OBD II. For example, Mr. Smisek said, GM dealers currently can cycle a vehicle's exhaust gas recirculation valve using a Tech 1 scan tool, while aftermarket tools don't have that capability. OBD II tools will enable all technicians to perform that test.
Aftermarket groups counter that the Clean Air Act Amendments prohibit automakers from locking them out.
They cite Section 202 of the law, which requires ``manufacturers to provide promptly to any person engaged in the repairing or servicing of motor vehicles or motor vehicle engines...with any and all information needed to make use of the emission control diagnostics system...and such other information, including instructions for making emission-related repairs.
``No such information may be withheld...if that information is provided (directly or indirectly) by the manufacturer to franchised dealers or other persons engaged in the repair, diagnosing, or servicing of motor vehicles or motor vehicle engines....'' Bob Redding, Washington representative for the Automotive Service Association, said, ``We feel like the law is specific on what should be available to us. We saw the law as a victory and expected the information to flow.
``Our concern is: We want what dealers are getting to be able to repair new cars,'' he said. ``All we're asking is that the mandate be followed.''
Nine aftermarket groups banded together in spring 1993 to press their case before the EPA.
Their concerns are two-fold:
Service groups fear that their members won't be able to repair new cars.
Parts groups say they can't develop new parts that won't exceed emissions limits without access to the EEPROM and the on-board diagnostics for testing and possible recalibration.
But Chris Kersting, a lawyer representing nine aftermarket firms, is not optimistic his clients will get that access.
``If you imagine the first half of the ruling as a door to information that is locked, the second half is a key,'' he said. ``But signals we're getting suggest that we're not going to get that key.''
If the EPA doesn't give the aftermarket the access it wants, Mr. Kersting said it will pursue a pending lawsuit to get the courts to force the automakers to open up.
Rather than cross swords, he said he's willing to talk.
``We have attempted, through EPA, to set up a way to meet with the (original equipment manufacturers) to discuss the concerns with the aftermarket, for both service and parts,'' he said.
``We've made that request on numerous occasions, but have had no response back.''