ANN ARBOR, Mich.-Independent automotive aftermarket companies will soon get full access to vehicle on-board diagnostic computer information. It's an issue they've been grappling over with car manufacturers since at least 1990.
On Aug. 2, Environmental Pro-tection Agency (EPA) Administra-tor Carol Browner is expected to sign the final draft of the Service Information Rule, which essentially levels the playing field between new-car dealers and independents who service and repair high-tech vehicle emissions control systems.
The Automotive Parts & Accessories Association (APAA), which has led the battle on behalf of aftermarketers, is finally declaring victory.
The automakers attempted but failed to convince the EPA to restrict the ability to reprogram on-board computers to only franchised car dealerships, the association said in a statement.
``Since car companies plan to use reprogramming to correct many emissions and driveability problems, blocking this capability to independents would have had a devastating impact on their ability to compete,'' Aaron Lowe, the APAA's senior director for regulatory and government affairs, said.
The draft rule further mandates access by independents to improved tools, which the APAA said would allow them to quickly diagnose and repair most emissions-related problems.
In a news release, Mr. Lowe applauded the EPA for recognizing ``the importance of the independent aftermarket in assuring that vehicles meet clean air standards.'' The new rule, he said, is a ``major victory'' both to the aftermarket and consumers, ``who will continue to enjoy affordable, effective and convenient vehicle service made available due to competition.''
The APAA, based in Bethesda, Md., calls itself the only international automotive association representing the entire retail aftermarket industry. It has more than 1,700 member companies, includ-ing manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers' representatives and others who make and market automotive products and services.
The EPA fashioned the rule to provide technicians with the information they need to service vehicles, according to Cheryl Adelman, senior policy advisor with the agency's Certification Division, Office of Mobile Sources in Ann Arbor. She was responsible for drawing up the rule, which will take effect 120 days after being published in the Federal Register.
All the reprogramming data will soon thereafter be available through the 24-hour online services of the federal government's National Technical Information Service Fed-World Information Sys-tem. It will be accessible at no cost for up to three hours daily by technicians via computer modem, on the Internet, or at Fed-World's World Wide Web site.
The primary issue of contention between the two sides from the start has been reprogramming, Ms. Adelman told TIRE BUSINESS. ``In the beginning, the aftermarket wanted the actual recalibrations, and the manufacturers didn't want to provide anything. The compromise everyone can live with is that the technicians will have the ability to reprogram vehicles but, like car dealerships, they won't see the actual recalibrations.''
The EPA's decision not to require car companies to provide independent parts producers with all necessary information was called ``shortsighted'' by Mr. Lowe, who said the data would help ensure that manufacturers' replacement parts will work properly with new sophisticated on-board computers.
``The availability of a wide array of emissions-related replacement parts is important to ensuring affordable and effective vehicle repairs,'' he said.
However, Ms. Adelman said ``there are aftermarket parts companies that want that information, but since dealerships don't get it, we didn't feel we could require manufacturers to hand it out. We just had to provide independents with the same capabilities as dealerships.''
When the Fed-World link is up and running, it will contain a ``one-stop shopping'' index of all manufacturers' emissions-related information, how much it and related tools will cost, and where they can be purchased. Ms. Adelman said some companies indicated they plan to put all their data-in addition to emissions infor-mation-online.
Fed-World's data base is ``quite huge and growing,'' she said. Technicians will be able to either download an index or do an on-line search. While the World Wide Web has unlimited capacity, Fed-World currently has several hundred lines accessible via modem and can add more if needed.
It is the cost of that information, however, that is still a bone of contention with aftermarketers.
According to the EPA, diagnostic information must be available at a ``fair market value'' after taking into account the following factors:
Cost to manufacturers of preparing and/or providing the infor-mation;
Type of information;
Price charged by other manu-facturers for similar information;
Size differences among manu-facturers;
Quantity of material;
Detail of the information;
Cost of the information prior to the final rule;
Volume discounts; and
Mr. Lowe said the rule's benefits to independents ``may not be fully realized due to EPA's failure to include sufficient controls on the price car companies can charge independents for access to the tools and information.''
The absence of strict cost guidelines-with services provided at a ``reasonable price,'' he said-will permit manufacturers to ``turn the availability of service information into a profit center at the expense of many independent aftermarket companies, which may find themselves priced out of the market.''
But Ms. Adelman disputes that, contending price-gouging concerns are ``unwarranted.''
``We don't believe that's a problem. `Reasonable price' takes into account the price of producing information, the form it's in and so forth. For (the EPA) to have specified prices would have been price-fixing, which is not within our reach.''
She admitted the majority of manufacturers indicated, ``off-the-record at least, that they see this as a business in which they can make money selling material.'' But technical manuals will be available basically in the same way they are now.
The cost prior to implementation of the EPA's rule will be a factor in determining whether costs are ``reasonable,'' she explained, ``so if anyone is going to try to increase prices dramatically, that will be taken into consideration as to whether they're complying.''
If problems crop up, she added, the rule can be ``revisited'' and supplemental notices issued.
Each vehicle manufacturer will have 120 days from publication of the final rule to provide information to Fed-World for vehicles introduced between model year 1994 and the rule's effective date. Information for vehicles introduced after the effective date must be made available to independents simultaneously with availability to new-car dealerships.
Fed-World-which also carries on-line information published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-can be accessed with computer and modem by dialing (703) 321-3339; via the Internet by using ``fedworld.gov''; or on the World Wide Web via ``www.fedworld.gov.''