WASHINGTON — In June 2006, the future of the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act looked bleak.
Federal Right to Repair legislation — which would have established criminal sanctions for auto makers that didn't make available at a reasonable price to consumers and independent auto repairers the same repair and diagnostic information they gave their franchised dealers — was quickly losing ground.
Five co-sponsors of the bill — including the chairwoman of the subcommittee that had just approved it 14-13 — asked for their names to be removed.
Today, Right to Repair is law in Massachusetts and went into effect with the 2018 model year. On the heels of the Massachusetts action, the auto makers that fought Right to Repair entered into a memorandum of understanding with the auto aftermarket nationwide to provide access to their service websites for a fee.
"In general, the law has been a big success, and most shops appear to be happy with it," said Aaron Lowe, senior vice president, regulatory and government affairs for the Auto Care Association (ACA).
The ACA and the Tire Industry Association (TIA) were among the organizations that advocated hardest for Right to Repair, along with the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), which was created specifically to work for passage of legislation guaranteeing auto repairers' rights to buy OE repair and diagnostic information.
The effort gained momentum with the 2002 agreement between the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and auto manufacturers to provide repair and diagnostic information.
From that point, the ASA said the agreement was more than adequate to protect auto shop owners' right to repair and diagnostic information, and opposed Right to Repair legislation.
However, groups such as the ACA — then known as the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association — and TIA played no role in negotiating the 2002 agreement and said they needed legal sanctions to ensure auto makers would not withhold crucial information.
Right to Repair advocates managed to get successive versions of a federal Right to Repair bill through congressional subcommittees or committees but failed to achieve a floor vote. However, their efforts to achieve passage of a state bill finally paid off in Massachusetts in 2012.
A Right to Repair bill passed the Massachusetts legislature on July 31 of that year. The bill was intended to stave off a stronger measure that had been placed on the Massachusetts ballot, but it failed to meet the deadline for removal of the ballot measure, which passed in November by an overwhelming margin.
Late in 2013, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill reconciling the two measures.
Under the reconciliation bill, vehicle makers doing business in Massachusetts were required to make available for sale to vehicle owners and independent shops the same diagnostic and repair information they made available to their franchised dealers, beginning with the 2002 model year.
Beginning with the 2018 model year, the bill required auto makers to provide access to their diagnostic and repair information systems to any owner or repair shop with an off-the-shelf computer.
Overseeing the smooth operation of the Massachusetts Right to Repair law and the details of the nationwide memorandum of understanding is the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), the organization set up by the ASA and the auto makers to monitor the effectiveness of the 2002 agreement.
The NASTF "will facilitate the identification and correction of gaps in the availability and accessibility of automotive service information, training, diagnostic tools and equipment, and communications in auto service professionals," according to the NASTF mission statement on its website.
Membership in the NASTF is free, and it offers many services to members, including reprogramming information, a scan tool center, how-to guides and videos, a page on locksmith/vehicle security and a page for service information requests.
Its most important service is a listing of OEM service websites, accompanied by a list of subscription prices.
The NASTF list, which covers 32 vehicle makes, provides information on how shop owners can buy OEM subscriptions by the day, week, month or year, according to Mr. Lowe, who is a member of the NASTF board of directors.
"All car companies have to put all their diagnostic information in the cloud, and technicians can download it into their personal computers," Mr. Lowe said. "At the end of the subscription, all the information goes back into the cloud."
Subscription prices also vary greatly according to manufacturer, he said. A one-year subscription, as shown on the NASTF website, can range from $350 for Acura Service Express to $7,800 for Ferrari.
One of the NASTF's major programs is the Secure Data Release Model (SDRM), a data exchange system conceived and designed cooperatively by auto makers, independent auto repairers and the insurance and law enforcement communities, according to the NASTF website.
"SDRM allows access to security-related information while protecting the safety and security of consumers and the integrity of automobile security systems," the website said.
SDRM 2.0 was a major topic at the NASTF's recent Spring General Meeting in Tucson, Ariz. So was another of its major initiatives, its "Road to Great Technicians" program, which is an effort to alleviate the continuing shortage of auto technicians by attracting young people to auto service and repair as a career.
Taking on telematics
Although the question of access to repair and diagnostic information has more or less been resolved, the issue of telematics — onboard vehicle communications systems — has not, according to CARE President Ray Pohlman.
"Telematics is what's left to do," said Mr. Pohlman, who also is vice president of government relations for AutoZone Inc. "The question is how we will ensure access for our customers and our companies."
The goal is to have telematics information accessible through a common platform, according to Mr. Pohlman. But that will be easier said than done, he said.
"There are 24 vehicle manufacturers, and all 24 have different telematics systems," he said.
In a similar issue, Mr. Lowe testified at an April 10 hearing before the U.S. Copyright Office in favor of the agency expanding the consumer exemption for auto repair under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
The DMCA exemption allows access to encrypted software only to car owners for purposes of repair, Mr. Lowe noted in his testimony.
However, he said, the exemption must also be extended to auto repairers, because car owners often do not have the knowledge or technological capabilities to perform their own repairs.
Extending the DCMA also is an issue that concerns the membership of The Repair Association, according to Gay Gordon-Byrne, that organization's executive director.
"We are focused on the repair of things that include microprocessors, or chips, which now spans a huge variety of industries," Ms. Gordon-Byrne said. "As you know, tires now contain chips — and so do sneakers."
Several groups in the computer and cell phone industries were looking to break repair monopolies in those industries at the same time Massachusetts passed automotive Right to Repair, according to Ms. Gordon-Byrne.
"As soon as auto Right to Repair was passed, it was obvious that the bill was exactly what we needed, but for everything other than cars," she said. "We set out to build a Digital Right to Repair Coalition to mimic the success of the automotive aftermarket groups that drove legislation in states."
Since then, Digital Right to Repair bills have been introduced in 18 states, according to Ms. Gordon-Byrne. However, not all of those bills are still active, she said.
"Many states are in session only a few weeks, and several are now concluded with varying degrees of success," she said. "None has fully passed yet, but it will get done."