It was the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the auto makers vs. the rest of the nation's auto aftermarket and small business associations as they debated the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
As at previous events, the ASA and the auto industry claimed their agreement for auto makers to provide repair and diagnostic information to independent repair shops makes the Right to Repair Act unnecessary. But other aftermarket associations-backed by such groups as the American Automobile Association and the National Federation of Independent Business-insisted the sanctions in the Right to Repair Act are needed to ensure the information remains both widely available and reasonably priced.
The testimony at the Sept. 22 hearing occasionally grew acrimonious. Bill Haas, ASA vice president of service repair markets, noted the repair shop owners and technicians swelling the audience in support of the Right to Repair Act and said the ASA's supporters were not at the hearing-and for a good reason.
``The owners and technicians of the best shops in America are at work,'' Mr. Haas said. ``They are busy servicing and repairing consumers' vehicles, and they are able to do that because service information, training and tools are available.''
Mr. Haas' statement met a sharp rebuke from Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., ranking minority member on the subcommittee. ``I have to assume they're not a bunch of slackers,'' she said regarding the technicians in the audience. ``They're hard-working enterpreneurs, much as their opponents are. Everyone agrees independent repair shops have the right to information. The disagreement is over whether that information is available.''
According to the ASA, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), that information is indeed available thanks to the agreement forged in September 2002 between auto makers and the 12,000-member ASA.
``The auto makers committed to make a good-faith effort at providing service information, tools, tool information and training to the independent repairer just as they do to the new car dealer,'' said Donald L. Seyfer, owner of Seyfer Automotive Inc. in Denver and an ASA supporter. ``To date, they have kept their word. Is it perfect? No. Have we established a structure to resolve problems that do arise in an industry serving 224 million vehicles? Yes.''
But supporters of the legislation said there have been major problems with accessibility and affordability of information since the ASA/auto maker agreement went into effect. Lynne Cardwell, CEO of Car Care Center Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., said General Motors Corp. quintupled the price of data stream information to her shop this year, from $10,000 to $50,000.
``We absolutely cannot survive without complete and consistent repair information,'' Ms. Cardwell said. ``If we can't get that, we're out of business-not today, not next month, but in two or three years at most.''
As for the voluntary agreement between the ASA and the auto makers, she said, ```Voluntary' is a word that concerns me. There is no force of law behind this.''
Ms. Cardwell said garages such as hers must pay more than $37,000 a year for access to the vehicle makers' technical data. But even when an independent shop pays for online access, she told members of Congress that finding what it needs ``is like going into the catacombs without a flashlight.''
The ASA's Mr. Haas told the subcommittee the task force has received 33 complaints about access to repair data this year, and auto makers responded to 31. An independent garage can get access to a car maker's technical information Web site in one to three days at an average short-term cost of $18.50, he said, calling the rates ``more than reasonable.''
Access to repair and diagnostic information is a basic issue of consumer rights, said Edward C. Donovan, director of automotive technical service for AAA-Mid-Atlantic, in support of the bill.
``AAA believes that when you drive off the lot with your car, you, the consumer, own more than just the vehicle. You should control the information the vehicle generates so that it can be repaired by a trusted service advisor of your choosing,'' Mr. Donovan said. ``The diagnostic information should not be accessible only by the dealerships.''
Although Tire Industry Association representatives did not testify at the hearing, TIA submitted testimony to the subcommittee. The association said it made no sense for auto makers to oppose the Right to Repair Act, because ``this legislation only backs up their commitment to the automotive service industry. The fact that these manufacturers oppose this legislation causes TIA to question their commitment to the agreement and forces us to keep supporting the legislation.''
Congressmen proved just as sharply divided as the aftermarket industry on the Right to Repair Act. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee and co-sponsor of the bill, said that while repair information is more available than it was a few years ago, it remains too difficult to obtain.
Not every independent shop will find it necessary or affordable to access every auto maker's repair Web site, Rep. Barton said. ``What is not fair competition is a situation where the independent repair shop makes the financial commitment to acquire the necessary tools and information but cannot get the information,'' he said.
However, Rep. John D. Dingell, ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, praised the NASTF.
``This task force has designed a non-legislative means through which the bill's stated objectives are being achieved,'' he said.
Rep. Dingell also accused the bill's supporters of having less than pure motives, suggesting the bill might end up ``jeopardizing the rights of automobile manufacturers and their suppliers'' by giving replacement parts makers the information they need to undersell original equipment parts makers.
The bill's supporters have consistently denied such motives. ``Aftermarket parts manufacturers have been successfully producing replacement parts for decades and do not need access to the car company's proprietary blueprints,'' said Kathleen Schmatz, president and CEO of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.
Before the hearing, the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE) held a press conference in which it released a survey it commissioned from the Tarrance Group, an independent polling and survey firm.
According to that survey, 92 percent of auto aftermarket retailers support passage of the Right to Repair Act-including 93 percent of ASA members. Fifty-nine percent reported they'd had problems getting access to repair information, and 24 percent of this subgroup said they had these problems ``extremely'' or ``very'' frequently. Sixty-seven percent said they'd been forced to send vehicles to auto dealerships because crucial repair information was unavailable.
With time running out before the October recess, CARE President David Parde said the bill's supporters would ``weigh their options'' for passage, including possibly seeking to add the legislation as a provision to a Senate appropriations package.