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2004 — A look into the past: Industry divided on 'right to repair'

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Industry right to repair

(Editor's Note: This story is part of our #TireBiz30 in which we feature one archived story every day of September to celebrate Tire Business' 30th anniversary. Each story represents one of the most relevant news story published in our pages for that year.)

WASHINGTON—After nearly two years, the automotive aftermarket is still split on whether independent auto repairers need legislation to force auto makers to provide them with service and diagnostic tools and information.

The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act is still before the Senate and House of Representatives but doesn't look likely for passage before Congress adjourns for the November election, despite more than 100 co-sponsors combined in both houses. Most major auto aftermarket associations, however, including the Tire Industry Association (TIA), still disagree strongly with the Automotive Service Association (ASA) that the agreement it forged with the auto industry to provide independent repairers with necessary tools and information is actually working.

The ASA, meanwhile, has taken its show on the road, holding a series of seminars titled "You Have the Right to Repair," showing independent shop owners how to access and navigate the different manufacturers' service Web sites. Response to the seminars has been "great," according to Bill Haas, ASA vice president of service repair markets.

For years, lack of access to the same repair and diagnostic information auto dealers get has been a sore point with independent auto repairers. Not only does this threaten their businesses, they insist, but it also reduces consumer choice in auto repair by tying consumers to auto dealership repair shops.

The Right to Repair Act is designed to ensure that auto makers give independent repairers all the information they need. It requires the Federal Trade Commission to prescribe and enforce rules requiring auto makers to provide to vehicle owners and repair facilities all the information they need to replace, repair, diagnose, install, service, activate or certify any equipment in the vehicle. Failure to do so is defined as an unfair or deceptive practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act, and vehicle owners and repairers have the right to bring civil actions against the manufacturers.

Currently, the legislation has 105 co-sponsors-96 in the House and nine in the Senate. (A June 8 report that Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., had signed on to the bill was erroneous, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous.)

Nevertheless, the bill has no hearings scheduled. This is particularly frustrating for TIA, for which the bill is becoming more important by the minute, according to Roy E. Littlefield III, TIA executive vice president.

"This is becoming a huge issue for us, thanks to (the pending rule on) tire pressure monitoring systems," Mr. Littlefield said. "What can be worse than a car dealer working on those systems while a tire dealer has no access to that information?"

TIA is re-establishing its annual State Executive Meeting in Washington early next year, and it has scheduled a "Lobby Day" March 1 for executives of state tire dealer organizations to talk to their elected officials primarily about the Right to Repair Act, Mr. Littlefield said. "We are hoping for the best, but anticipating the worst," he said of the bill's legislative chances.

Besides TIA, a number of major associations-both in and outside the auto aftermarket-support the Right to Repair Act. These include the Coalition for Auto Repair Choice, the American Automobile Association, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). The AAIA has a model letter on its Web site that its members can sign and send to their congressmen and senators, arguing for passage of the legislation.

The AAIA letter argues that the September 2002 repair information agreement between the ASA, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers is not legally enforceable and therefore cannot be relied on. "I cannot afford to stake my industry's future on a promise," the AAIA letter states. "Furthermore, I would rather not be forced to come back to Congress for relief when this promise is broken in the years ahead."

Not to be outdone, the ASA has a page on its grassroots political Web site, www.takingthehill.com, making it easy for members to contact their elected officials to oppose the Right to Repair Act.

"While the stated goal of (the Right to Repair Act) is one we share-to ensure that motorists can get their vehicles serviced wherever they choose-the bill goes well beyond this goal to jeopardize the intellectual property rights of auto makers and to grant an unprecedented competitive opportunity to aftermarket parts manufacturers," states a joint letter from the ASA, the AAM and the AIAM on the Taking the Hill Web site.

Meanwhile, Mr. Haas is going across the U.S. giving the ASA's right to repair seminars to repair shop owners and techs. He has given "10 or 12" so far, to audiences ranging from about a dozen to 90 or more. He has scheduled another 17 or so through early November, up to and including the International Auto Body Congress & Exposition Nov. 3 and the Congress of Automotive Repair and Service Nov. 6.

In those seminars, Mr. Haas shows attendees how to access and navigate auto makers' informational Web sites, all of which are listed as clickable links on the ASA Web site.

The signatory companies to the September 2002 agreement-15 firms representing 35 makes of vehicles-all had their informational Web sites up by April 2003, four months ahead of the schedule set by the agreement, the ASA said.

In the seminars, Mr. Haas stresses the need for repair shops to have Internet access and computer-literate technicians. He also states that access to the auto makers' Web sites-at a cost averaging $20 per day-is well within the means of most shops.

Out in the field, reaction to the Web sites is mixed. Stan Elmore, president of Stan's Tire & Auto Service in Lafayette, Colo., said it depends on the manufacturer whether the Web site is useful and affordable.

"Toyota is really setting the standard here," Mr. Elmore told Tire Business. "The fee is $350 for a full year, which is peanuts, and its Web site has a great design. But General Motors charges $2,000 to $2,500 for a year's access, Porsche wants over $5,000, and Volvo is also in the thousands." He said he would like to see some uniformity in Web site design and fees, with Toyota taken as the standard.

Mr. Elmore's main concern, however, is how long the Web sites will be available to independent repair shops, which is why he supports the Right to Repair Act. "Although I'm happy with where we are today, I'm not sure we don't need the bill to assure future access," he said.

Mr. Haas, however, insisted the Web sites are not too expensive for the average repair shop's purpose. "Other segments of the industry want the world to believe they're too expensive," he said. "When a general repair shop has occasion to go to a Web site, he can do it for one day. If you subscribed to all the Web sites annually, that would break the bank, but I can't think of any repair shop that would need to do that."

Mike Cadena, manager of La Canada Tire in La Canada, Calif., said he had never heard of ASA's agreement with manufacturers nor has he ever used the auto makers' Web sites. His shop uses ALLDATA and Visions as its repair data providers, "but that does not give us troubleshooting information," he said.

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