The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act could go to a vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee before mid-December, according to advocates of the legislation.
However, legislators at a Nov. 10 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Trade Protection said they hoped a non-legislative agreement could still be reached between auto makers and aftermarket representatives over what repair and diagnostic information independent garages should get.
In particular, they wrestled with solutions for the impasse over the makeup of the governing board for the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), which oversees the efforts of auto makers to provide repair and diagnostic data to independent auto repairers through dedicated Web sites.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which would enforce the Right to Repair Act if it passes, estimates that auto repair is an $80 billion-plus business in the U.S. each year. A blunderbuss approach to policing the industry would not help consumers, said James A. Kohm, associate director of the Division of Enforcement within the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection.
``The commission continues to believe that, in the long run, a voluntary, self-regulatory approach is the best solution,'' Mr. Kohm said. ``If the Congress determines, however, that legislation is appropriate, the commission believes it is important that the resolution of particular disputes be decided and implemented by industry participants rather than the government.''
Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said at the end of the hearing that he would ask Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas-chairman of the full committee and chief sponsor of the Right to Repair Act-to write a letter to the FTC asking if it would oversee the establishment of an independent, third-party governing board for the NASTF.
``This is the first time I've heard about it (an independent governing board),'' said Aaron M. Lowe, vice president of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), during a media conference call after the hearing. ``We'd be willing to take a look at it, but the devil is in the details.''
All major auto makers/marketers except Porsche Cars North America made a voluntary agreement with the Automotive Service Association (ASA) in September 2002 to provide the same repair and diagnostic information and tools to independent garages as they do to their franchised dealers. NASTF was founded to oversee that process and field complaints from garage owners.
Other aftermarket organizations, however-including the AAIA, the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality and the Tire Industry Association (TIA)-insist that most of the manufacturer Web sites are overly expensive and hard to navigate and that the NASTF considers a complaint solved if a manufacturer merely answers a garage owner's query.
The two sides negotiated in August and September toward a non-legislative agreement but adjourned Sept. 30 without resolving some key differences. One of these was the governance of the NASTF. The AAIA and CARE wanted to choose four representatives on the eight-member board, which the other side insisted was disproportionate.
``CARE's insistence on controlling at least 50 percent of an NASTF governing board would have significantly diminished the voices of the most important stakeholders in this issue: repair shops, diagnostic equipment makers, auto makers and automotive trainers,'' said Michael J. Stanton, vice president of government and international affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Even if the FTC would develop an acceptable plan for an independent board, there are still plenty of other unresolved issues, according to Mr. Lowe and CARE President David Parde. These include whether the information and tools provided to independent garages would have the same capabilities as those provided to auto dealers; whether independent garages would be able to repair vehicles equipped with immobilizer systems; and whether auto makers would provide the next generation of diagnostic tools beyond ``scan tools'' and tire pressure monitors.
The Right to Repair Act was rewritten from last year's version to include more safeguards against aftermarket parts makers' stealing proprietary original equipment parts designs. Nevertheless, auto makers and their supporters said intellectual property theft was still a major concern.
``I fear the bill may impede the competitiveness of the auto industry at a precarious time in its existence,'' said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., ranking minority member on Energy and Commerce.
Mr. Parde, however, tried to allay such fears. ``We don't want to know how you make your parts,'' he said. ``We wouldn't know what to do with that information.''
Rep. Barton said he saw little choice but to proceed with the legislation. ``I don't doubt the good faith of the participants in the negotiations, but the fact remains that they can't agree,'' he said.
However, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., an original co-sponsor of the Right to Repair Act, urged the participants to find a non-legislative solution while there was still time. ``You don't want the government to get its nose under your tent,'' he said.
The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act would require auto makers to make repair and diagnostic information and tools available to independent auto repairers, on pain of criminal sanctions. The bill now has 70 co-sponsors in the House, Mr. Lowe said.