WASHINGTON (Aug. 28, 2006) — The ongoing war for and against the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act has continued through the summer, as supporters and opponents exchanged pot shots via editorials and industry surveys.
Consumer Reports, the influential publication of the consumer watchdog group Consumers Union, recently published an editorial about the Right to Repair Act titled, “Bogus Solution to High Auto Repair Costs.”
Shortly thereafter, Opinion Re-search Corp., an independent pollster, issued the results of a survey of more than 1,000 independent auto repair shop owners, stating that they were losing more than $5.8 billion in business annually because they can't access the repair and diagnostic information they need to make vehicle repairs. This study, commissioned by the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), directly contradicts the Consumers Union, AAIA said.
The Right to Repair Act passed a House subcommittee May 25 by a razor-thin, 14-13 vote. The bill would mandate criminal sanctions against auto makers that fail to provide independent auto repair shops with the same repair and diagnostic information, at a reasonable price, that they give their franchised dealers.
Most automotive aftermarket associations—including the AAIA, the Tire Industry Association and the Specialty Equipment Market Association —support the bill. But the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and major auto industry associations insist the voluntary information agreement they signed in September 2002 is adequate to solve the information problem.
The ASA-auto industry coalition has been making headway in official Washington recently. Though the Right to Repair Act still boasts more than 90 House co-sponsors, several legislators have asked since May 25 to be removed as co-sponsors. Some have made statements to the effect that the aftermarket hasn't proven that independent techs are really being hurt by the lack of a right to repair law.
The Consumer Reports editorial was the latest statement taking this approach. Using the 2004 survey performed by the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), Consumer Reports calculated that independent shops had to turn away only 0.2 to 1.2 percent of the vehicles that came to them in 2004, compared with 15 percent in 2002. “It's not clear why CARE is dissatisfied with such significant progress,” the editorial said.
The publication also opined that the bill might force auto makers to release key codes and other secret vehicle security information, and that it might allow aftermarket tuners to recalibrate anti-pollution controls to enhance engine performance while increasing emissions.
However, the AAIA survey quantified at 1.2 million the number of consumers lost by independent shops each year because of inaccessible repair data. Of the shop owners polled, the survey added, 70 percent said they had no confidence that auto makers will always provide them with repair information unless forced to do so.
“This comprehensive look at the repair issue further shows that while car companies claim the problem is solved, the reality does not support their assertions,” said Kathleen Schmatz, AAIA president and CEO, in a press release about the survey.
A recent study by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said as much, noting that the lack of access to auto makers' repair and diagnostic information is hurting independent garages and their customers more than most people realize.
Of the independent auto technicians surveyed by the NFIB, a major supporter of the Right to Repair Act, 78 percent said they had to turn away business or refer customers to an auto dealer because of a lack of repair information. Even worse, 44 percent said they had to pay a dealer technician under the table to gain access to repair information, according to the survey.
Regarding the dueling documents, Sandy Bass-Cors, CARE executive director, said her organization hasn't seen any progress at all in obtaining repair information for independent garages. When independent technicians contact the Web site of the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF)—which oversees the operation of the ASA-auto industry agreement—and try to access the auto makers' informational Web sites, they never obtain as much information as the auto dealers, she claimed.
“What happens is that auto aftermarket technicians have to backdoor the information they need through friends who work for dealers,” Ms. Bass-Cors said. “It's a real bait-and-switch.”
But John Cabaniss, a member of the NASTF board, said the CARE position was completely inaccurate. “Dealers may have functions online like being able to file warranty claims, which independents wouldn't need,” he said. “But all the repair documents and tools are exactly the same for dealers and independents alike.”