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Does the US need a ‘right-to-repair’ law?

By Claes Bell ·
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Posted: 2 pm ET

It's no secret that cars have become more complex and computerized in recent years. Some advocates for independent repair shops say automakers are exploiting this complexity to force customers into dealer repair shops by holding back tools and information necessary to diagnose and repair car problems.

A battle over the issue in the Massachusetts legislature could soon spread to other states and end up having a big effect on how you service your car in the future. The Massachusetts "Right to Repair" bill, which passed the state senate on July 6, forces automakers to make available to independent shops any tools, information and software they share with dealership repair shops. Similar legislation has been put forward in many other states and in the U.S. Congress.

The economic stakes of this legislative battle are high; auto parts and repair represent a $280 billion market in the U.S., according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, which endorses the bill.

The stakes are high for consumers as well. A study by AutoMD conducted in April found that consumers save an average of $300 a year by going to independent mechanics for maintenance. If independent shops can't get the tools, software and information they need to repair consumers' cars, consumers may be forced to pay higher prices at the dealership.

Whether that's actually happening is up for debate. The Right to Repair Coalition commissioned a survey in 2006 that seemed to show repair shops were turning away an average of 6 customers a year because they didn't have access to the tools or information necessary to repair their cars, for a total of 1.2 million jobs turned down. Still, it remains to be seen whether that's happening now, four years later.

Opponents of the bill are arguing the problems the bill seeks to address have already been resolved. Auto manufacturers and the National Auto Dealers Association are arguing that "right-to-repair" legislation is unnecessary because, as NADA says on its Web site, "the private sector already provides cost-effective access to any information necessary to service or repair vehicles."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposes the measure on the grounds that it could put sensitive information about theft security systems into criminal hands and give critical technical information to aftermarket parts manufacturers looking to create cheaper, non-OEM replacement parts.

It's hard to tell who's in the right here. For one thing, the Massachusetts bill is opposed by the New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, which insists its members already have all the access to repair information they need. But on the other hand, a whole host of auto repair trade organizations and businesses support it.

It seems fishy to me how much dust this issue is kicking up. Put together, opponents and supports of the bill will spend up to $1.5 million lobbying and advertising in the Bay State alone, according to The Detroit News. I'm somewhat of a libertarian on issues like this; my thinking is unless the bill's supporters can prove conclusively that the status quo is hurting consumers, the bill should be scrapped.

What do you think? I especially would love to hear from automotive service professionals to give me some clarity on this.

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August 07, 2010 at 6:13 am

I've been in the auto repair industry for fifteen years and have worked for both new auto dealers and independents.
In addition I've ran my own shop for five years.
This bill should have been passed twenty five years ago. Dealerships definitely have an edge when comes to diagnosing and performing complex repairs, their special tooling and software is specifically designed by the manufacturer that they represent.
This allows them to take on repairs that many independents cannot. Dealers also have an extensive network of connections at the automobile factories that allow them to solve problems when they can't resolve it on their own. Lastly, their mechanics recieve training straight from the manufacture that the dealer represents. So with all that can we at least give the little guy a little more access to info so we can survive.